Tom Vilsack on Why Debt Relief for Black and Minority Farmers is a Major Civil Rights Victory

From the late 1800s until the turn of the 21st century, Black families lost nearly 98% of their land, and the number of Black farmers fell from more than 1 million to fewer than 50,000 today. (CHARLIE RIEDEL, AP)

The American Rescue Plan became law two months ago, and already we’ve seen hunger drop more than 40%. The unemployment rate has fallen by more than half thanks to the creation of more than 1.5 million new jobs.

Those $1,400 checks have allowed families to pay down debt built up over the pandemic. And federal dollars have brought safe, effective COVID-19 vaccinations to nearly 160 million Americans across the country.

For Black and minority farmers, the American Rescue Plan could represent one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in decades. That’s because deep within the law is a provision that responds to decades of systemic discrimination perpetrated against farmers and ranchers of color by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The law directs USDA to pay off the farm loans of nearly 16,000 minority farmers and begin to address longstanding racial equity challenges that have plagued farmers of color for generations.

Today, after months of planning, USDA begins this historic debt relief program.

For much of the history of the USDA, Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and other minority farmers have faced discrimination — sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies — that have prevented them from achieving as much as their counterparts who do not face these documented acts of discrimination.

For example, in 2020, USDA distributed tens of billions of dollars to farmers due to COVID-related market losses. But those payments went primarily to white producers while socially disadvantaged producers — a legal term for Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and farmers of color — received just 1% of the aid.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Tom Vilsack