Building Black Farm Wealth Requires Addressing Structural Racism at the USDA
In March, the National Agricultural Statistics Service released new numbers that revealed black farmers ran only 1.52 percent of farms in 2017, a slight downtick from 2012, when 1.58 percent of farms were operated by African Americans. The picture gets bleaker when compared to the fact that in 1910, black Americans made up 14 percent of this country’s farmers.
As we demonstrate in a recent Center for American Progress report, the history of black farming in the United States serves as a prime example of how structural racism—the discrimination against and the exclusion of people of color by institutions—has robbed black farmers of the opportunity to build wealth.
Farming and land ownership have been crucial to building wealth, especially in rural areas. However, federal farm policy aimed at nurturing family-owned and operated farms has excluded black families since its inception. The implementation of the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act bailed out white farm owners while providing little to no relief to black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs consistently awarded proportionately fewer loans and smaller loans to black farmers when compared to white farmers.
The racist design and implementation of federal policy, in combination with discriminatory lending practices, impeded black farmers’ ability to obtain the capital needed to run their farm businesses, contributing to the loss of more than 36 million acres of farmland between 1920 and 1978. Independent reports have thoroughly documented structural racism at the USDA for decades, prompting only modest reforms. One 1982 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights identified discrimination as one of the economic factors that “perpetuate a disadvantageous, noncompetitive position for black farmers that presently threatens their survival as farmers.”
The USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights (OASCR) has proven ineffective at holding the agency accountable. During the Reagan administration, USDA officials reportedly threw civil rights complaints directly in the garbage, while the George W. Bush administration allowed many to expire without investigating the claims. Today, OASCR is headed by Naomi Churchill Earp, whose record on civil rights includes efforts to start an affirmative action program for white men at the National Institute of Health in the 1990s.
The loss of black-owned farmland is the result of decades of conscious policy decisions by lawmakers and officials at the USDA. Lawmakers today face a moral imperative to address the structural racism endemic in farm policy and make an affirmative commitment to supporting black farms. While slight gains in black farming since modest reforms began in the 1990s provide some hope for the future, the stagnation in the percent of farms run by black Americans underscore the need for bold policy action.
Policymakers have many tools to promote black farming in the United States. One such method is establishing a land trust that would purchase land from retiring farmers and set it aside to sell to black farmers at a subsidized price in order to support black land ownership. The USDA should create a task force dedicated to providing legal and technical outreach to older black farmers that would help them organize their estate to facilitate the transfer of property to the next generation.
Moreover, Congress must pass legislation to protect land that has been passed down between generations without formal wills or titles, known as heirs’ property. Much of the farmland owned by black Americans is heirs’ property, which is vulnerable to so-called “forced partition sales” in which one member of the family can petition a judge to allow the sale of a property over the objections of the rest of the family. Predatory buyers often use this process to acquire property at prices well below market value by pitting family members against each other. While some state laws protect heirs’ property from forced partition sales, federal law must extend this legal coverage to all black farms.
Finally, Congress must bolster USDA programs dedicated to technical outreach and conduct continuous, independent oversight of the administration of such programs. In the next Farm Bill, lawmakers should designate mandatory funding for outreach and assistance programs dedicated to black farmers specifically. It should also mandate that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regularly audit the USDA to ensure that black farmers have the same access to and participation rates in USDA programs and collect data on farmer demographics, black land ownership, and the processing of civil rights complaints by OASCR.
Structural racism persists in farming to this day. Recent high-profile cases of discrimination against black farmers by public and private actors require swift action. The pervasiveness of structural racism in farming demands a long-term commitment and bold action from both lawmakers and USDA officials to ensure that U.S. policies yield equitable results.
Zoe Willingham is a research assistant for Economic Policy and Abril Castro is a research assistant for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.