A first-of-its-kind hearing took place by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee last week, detailing the longtime systemic racism against Black farmers in the country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A Hearing to Review the State of Black Farmers in the U.S. was held virtually on March 25, with six farmers and farmer advocates in attendance as witnesses who shared their experiences and solutions to address the effects of discrimination and improve the profitability and sustainability of Black farmers.
Rep. David Scott, chairman of the House Ag Committee, began the hearing by saying the topic of Black farmers in the country was "deeply embedded" in his heart. He said the discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA is "well documented" in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Government Accountability Office and by the USDA itself.
"This hearing today is a very public way to address the deep mistrust that many farmers of color feel towards USDA, and to make sure that in an increasingly competitive agriculture economy no talent or ability is ignored or left behind," Scott said. "We no longer can afford that approach."
Scott explained that in 1997 a group of Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against USDA over the agency’s discrimination against Black farmers in farm loan programs as well as the agency's failure to investigate racial discrimination complaints. The USDA settled the lawsuit and, as part of the settlement, some Black farmers received $50,000. These payments are often referred to as the Pigford settlements, after Timothy Pigford, one of the farmers who filed the class action lawsuit.
"Now many of my House colleagues may think that $50,000 is a lot of money, but when a new tractor costs as much as a half a million dollars, $50,000 is barely enough to buy even a reasonably good used one," Scott said. "$50,000 is not enough to make up for decades of discrimination and generational wealth lost from the losing of land and livelihood among Black farmers."
Scott went on to say that the "systemic discrimination continues to be felt by Black farmers today, who are still disadvantaged in USDA programs."
"This festering wound on the soul of American agriculture must be healed," Scott said.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack presented two steps that need to be taken by the agency to address the issues that Black farmers face head on. The first step is to re-address the "discrimination that has proven to be systemic, evidently reflecting the way we have designed or implemented our programs, laws and regulations."
"By focusing on determining whether producers can prove specific, individualized discrimination, our past actions have failed to do the necessary work tailored to addressing the systemic discrimination socially disadvantaged producers face," Vilsack said.
The second step he laid out was to "establish the support systems to enable socially disadvantaged producers to have the opportunity to succeed."
"Only with the establishment of such systems will we be able to finally address the cumulative effect of discrimination and break the cycles that are holding these producers back," Vilsack said.