Black Farmers Continue to Fight Systemic Discrimination

By any definition, Kendall Rae Johnson is an exceptional child.

It all started when her parents saved stems of collard greens and planted them for a garden in honor of her great-grandmother.

“A week later she came over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something growing,'” her mother, Ursula Johnson, said. “Then she was inspired. She planted cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers. She looked at it, touched it, made sure there were no insects. That was the start.

Now, at age 6, Kendall Rae is the youngest certified farmer in Georgia history, meeting those requirements last fall.

“I like to play in the dirt,” she said.

Six-year-old Kendall Rae Johnson is the youngest certified farmer in Georgia history. (Credit: family photo)

What sets Kendall apart from other kids is her fascination and passion for learning about plant and animal husbandry. A century ago, that wouldn’t have been so unusual for an African-American child. Next, black farmers made up 14% of producers in the United States. By 2017, that number had fallen to just 1.4%, according to the latest report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). agricultural census. They too lost 90% of their propertysome 16 million acres worth up to $350 billion during that time, compared to just 2% for white farmers.

Like all people who work the land, black farmers had to deal with Mother Nature and her whims. But unlike their white counterparts, they had to fight a war on two fronts. While the federal government has provided large-scale loan and grant programs to farmers, studies have shown that most of this assistance has historically went to white farmers and was largely denied to black farmers.

And it’s not just a problem of yesteryear. Even today, government programs designed to help farms survive the market effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have largely failed black farmers. In fact, efforts aimed directly at socially disadvantaged producers — those who have experienced racial or ethnic bias or cultural bias within American society — are stalled in a Texas court, where a trial judge ruled that programs aimed at correcting more than a century of discrimination are in themselves discriminatory.

“(T)he government presents no evidence of intentional discrimination by the USDA for at least the past decade,” according to the court’s opinion on the matter. “Finding intentional discrimination therefore requires a logical leap, as well as a time leap. In sum, the government’s evidence does not demonstrate compelling interest, as any past discrimination is too muted in relation to the current lingering effects to warrant race-based remedies by Congress.

Basically, the court ruled that there is a time limit to how far Congress can go to remedy the government’s intentional discrimination. This also has huge implications for other types of repairs.

No place at the table

The challenges facing black farmers date back to the abolition of slavery and the era of reconstruction that followed. In fact, two pieces of legislation that have primarily helped white farmers over the years – the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land Grant Act – were adopted in 1862. In 1934, more than 270 million acres – 10% of American land – were transferred from tribal nations into the hands of more than 1.6 million largely white settlers. Many of these transfers were made before the adoption in 1868 of the 14th amendmentwhich granted citizenship to former slaves.

Much of the discrimination was much more overt and directed. Over the years, the courts have determined that black farmers were discriminated against at all levels. Government officials withheld loan and grant funds, which made it difficult, if not impossible, for black farmers to compete with their white counterparts.

Additionally, the lack of established wealth and land passed down through generations left black farmers at a disadvantage, even before the damaging actions of the U.S. government.

These are not just allegations. They have been documented for over half a century. In his 1965 report on black farmers, the US Civil Rights Commission found many problems with how federal programs treated farmers of color. The report documented how the USDA Cooperative Extension Service, Farm Homes Administration, Soil Conservation Service, and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service denied thousands of black farmers access to services provided to white farmers to help them diversify their crops, increase production, achieve proper farming operations, or train for off-farm employment.

sugar cane field

A laborer walks through a sugar cane field, where the work can be intense and strenuous. (Credit: iStock photo)

The report also showed that of nearly 5,000 members of county committees for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in 11 Southern states, none were black, even though these committees had enormous power over who received and who was not receiving farm program payments.

These findings, to varying degrees, were repeated in similar reports in 1982 and 1997. Efforts to retain black farmers have continued well into the 21st century.

In the mark In the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit, a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the USDA had consistently denied aid to black farmers. Under the consent decree settling the case, payments totaling $1 billion were distributed to some 20,000 black farmers.

But the discrimination did not stop there. Another $1.2 billion was awarded a decade later to settle claims in later litigation that the USDA had continued its practice of ignoring black farmers; many farmers who should have been compensated in the first settlement were denied payments due to delays and the slowness of government officials. Even then, the amount each plaintiff received was relatively small despite the overall size of the settlement.

“White Nationalist Litigation”

In recent years, efforts to offset systemic discrimination against black farmers have themselves been targeted as discriminatory.

Shortly after President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed, a group called America First Legal filed a lawsuit on behalf of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for North Texas, argues that two parts of the law, Sections 1005 and 1006, are discriminatory because they set up some $5 billion in assistance specifically to repay the loans and provide other assistance to farmers who have been discriminated against because of the small size of their operations.

Not surprisingly, America First Legal was created by former senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who has a long history of promoting white nationalist ideology and policies, both before and during his service in the White House. . His ties to far-right and white nationalist groups have been widely documented, including in a series of articles based on leaked emails to HateWatch from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

An examining magistrate blocked distributing aid to black farmers under both sections of ARPA pending a resolution of the lawsuit, which means much of the aid is in limbo. As more funds are released, farmers who depend on ARPA funds to level the playing field must instead battle not only systemic discrimination, but also the challenges of operating in the midst of a global pandemic. .

Working in a broken system

While there are ongoing litigation to help remove the systemic barriers that black farmers face, other groups are trying to help these farmers operate within the existing faulty infrastructure. The SPLC, for example, has partnered with organizations such as EcoWomanist Institute and the Center for Community Advancement to expand and deepen its grassroots advocacy for black farmers.

“We work to support several community organizations in Georgia primarily to help farmers develop the skills and expertise needed to grow their farming operations,” said Clara Potter, an attorney with the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “These are people who applied for microloans through a rural FSA [Farm Service Agency] office in Georgia and have been denied loans for reasons which we believe do not fully correspond.

Potter said that while there is a history of discrimination, there isn’t always a long legal trail to follow.

Kendall Rae Johnson tends to her garden

Six-year-old Kendall Rae Johnson tends to her garden, which she has turned into her own urban farming business. (Credit: family photo)

“It’s rare to find individual farmers challenging FSA offices on the grounds of discrimination,” Potter said. “As you can imagine, there are a lot of hurdles to bringing these lawsuits. There is a lot of opacity in these processes. We help these farmers re-apply for these microloans and hope they will be approved or, if denied, we will help them with the appeal process. »

As these processes to resolve historical discriminations progress, Kendall Rae Johnson is cultivating hope for a better future. She is developing her own urban agriculture business, aGROWKulture, creation of product baskets for local customers. Due to national media coverage of her certification, she was successful in a GoFundMe effort to expand her garden’s footprint.

She’s also about to hit another big milestone by becoming the youngest person to start her own 4-H classes.

“She’s going to start with four classes,” Ursula Johnson said. “Beekeeping, gardening, public speaking/leadership and animal companionship. She uses horses for that.

In the meantime, as winter hangs over the South, Kendall Rae is more focused on things under her control that farmers have faced for centuries.

“I put on a warm coat and go out,” she said. “I go out and keep the cold out.”

Top photo: Kendall Rae Johnson, a 6-year-old farmer from Georgia, is the youngest person to run her own 4-H classes. (Credit: family photo)

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