Relief payments to Black farmers on hold amid lawsuits

By: - June 25, 2021 3:43 pm

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-GA, shown in a file photo from June 28, 2012, is the House Agriculture Committee chairman. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Former Trump administration officials and conservative and libertarian nonprofits have launched lawsuits to block federal relief funds aimed at Black and minority farmers — a development that House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott of Georgia calls “an evil system at work here.”

Suits have been filed in Florida, Wisconsin and Texas that say it’s unconstitutional to direct COVID-19 relief funds to Black farmers, who make up 1% of all farmers. The $4 billion in the American Rescue Plan is intended to help relieve debt the farmers accrued from decades of systematic discrimination in USDA lending.

A judge in a Florida federal court issued a nationwide injunction Wednesday, preventing the U.S. Department of Agriculture from issuing grants to those minority farmers. U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard said the agency could still prepare to deliver debt relief until the program is found “constitutionally permissible.”

Scott, a Democrat, in an interview with States Newsroom was highly critical of the legal challenge, and questioned how any judge could deny the history of discrimination against Black farmers in the U.S.

“There is a system, an evil system at work here,” Scott said, and added that he believes Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, is behind it.

Lawsuits claim discrimination against white farmers

The lawsuit, Miller v. Vilsack, was filed in Texas by the nonprofit America First Legal. The organization was started earlier this year by Stephen Miller and Trump’s chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., as a conservative version of the ACLU.

“America First Legal opposes discrimination in all forms,” Miller said in a statement when the suit was filed. “We hold fast to the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr. that Americans ‘should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”

America First Legal also includes in its leadership Matt Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa who for a time was the acting attorney general during the Trump administration, and Russ Vought, the former Office of Management and Budget director under Trump.

The lone plaintiff in that case is Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is a rancher in the Lone Star State. Miller spent $641,000 running for his commissioner seat, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The suit takes issue with Sections 1005 and 1006 of the American Rescue Plan enacted in March. The law uses language in the 1990 farm bill to define “socially disadvantaged” agricultural producers as people “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.”

That includes agriculture producers who are African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Asian or Pacific Islander.

The language does not prevent white farmers from also applying to the program, but all three lawsuits argue that the program excludes white farmers and is therefore discriminating against white farmers.

The USDA, which is headed up by Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, did not respond to a request for comment.

In her ruling in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Morales Howard wrote that “in enacting Section 1005, Congress expressed the intention of seeking to remedy a long, sad history of discrimination against (socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers) in the provision and receipt of USDA loans and programs.”

“Such an intention is not only laudable, it is demanded by the Constitution. But in doing so, Congress also must heed its obligation to do away with governmentally imposed discrimination based on race,” Morales Howard wrote.

The suit is ongoing.

The Florida case was brought by North Florida farmer Scott Wynn, who is being represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian legal organization based in California that has an office in the Sunshine State.

The lawsuit argues that “Mr. Wynn is categorically excluded from loan assistance under Section 1005 because he is white.”

Pacific Legal Foundation is one of the oldest conservative advocacy groups and receives funding from several conservative and libertarian groups such as the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Donors Trust, which is tied to the Charles G. Koch Foundation.

The Bradley Foundation also helps bankroll the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which filed a suit against USDA on behalf of 12 white farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

From 2011 to 2018, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty received nearly $6 million from the Bradley Foundation, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, which is a progressive nonprofit watchdog group. Michael Grebe, the former president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, currently sits on the board of directors at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

The Wisconsin suit, Faust et al v. Vilsack et al, also argues that white farmers are excluded from the program and is therefore discriminatory.

Scott calls lawsuits a ‘political gambit’

Georgia’s Scott, the first Black lawmaker to chair the House Agriculture Committee, has held multiple hearings outlining the decades of discrimination Black farmers faced from USDA. He said white farmers can apply for the relief program.

“It’s a political gambit too,” Scott said of the lawsuits. “How can a judge say that there is no past or present discrimination?”

Tom Vilsack speaks during a confirmation hearing on his appointment as U.S. agriculture secretary. (Screen shot from Senate livestream)

Black and minority farmers were left out of the pandemic relief funds during the Trump administration. In a House Agriculture hearing, Vilsack said only 0.1% of Black farmers received any of the $26 billion in economic aid provided to farmers through the agency’s program created by the Trump administration to help farmers weather the pandemic.

Only $20.8 million went to Black farmers and the rest went to white farmers, he said.

Black lawmakers have also raised concerns that if the relief money is not sent to Black farmers, then those farmers could lose their land.

“We’re on the verge of losing what little Black and socially disadvantaged farmers we have,” Scott said.

In 1920, there were nearly 1 million Black farmers who worked on 41.4 million acres, making up about 7% of the farming landscape.

Today, there are about 50,000 Black farmers who work on 4.7 million acres, making them 1.4% of the nation’s farmers. White farmers make up 98% of rural farmers.

Scott said the lawsuits popping up in the courts in reaction to Black farmers getting federal help is just the past repeating itself, starting with the end of slavery.

In 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman gave newly freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. But after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, newly sworn-in President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order. Many Black scholars have cited this moment as the beginning of generational economic setbacks for African Americans.

“There is a pattern of this refusal to recognize the strong discrimination and racism that Black people especially face,” Scott said.

Over the last 150 years, Black farmers lost land due to New Deal legislation programs, and faced rampant discrimination from USDA, to the point that the agency had to reach a large settlement with Black farmers.

Congressional hearings, Government Accountability Office reports, federal courts and USDA reports have continued to find Black farmers faced discrimination that led to land loss and debt.

“We got through slavery, we got through Jim Crow,” Scott said. “We’re going to get through this.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana Figueroa covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.

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