"There are forms of inequality that exist both within the United States and globally but also forms of resilience that come out of this past."
— Dr. Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science, Columbia University, on the legacy of slavery
February is Black History Month, a time to pause and consider the contributions and losses of Black Americans. Black American history is inextricably linked with food and agriculture, punctuated with violence and tragedy, resilience and skill, perseverance and the tireless pursuit of equality.
Today, the federal government continues to wrestle with the ongoing work of reconciliation. Financial assistance programs for farmers who have experienced discrimination — predominantly farmers of color — are finally, hopefully, taking shape.
Injustice and resilience
Slavery generated tremendous prosperity during America's first century, transforming America from an agricultural colony to an industrialized world power. As activist Kimberly Jones passionately explains, Black labor powered agricultural work in the South and textile work in the North, producing wealth and keeping it out of Black hands. After the official abolition of slavery in 1865, bigotry persisted and evolved into new forms of oppression.
During this time, there were also indisputable innovations and critical victories, and to speak of the tragedies without acknowledging the accomplishments is to tell an incomplete story. From George Washington Carver's revolutionary regenerative practices to the co-operatives behind the civil rights movement, Black ingenuity inspires food security and social justice advocates today.
"We as Black people are bombarded with messages that our only place of belonging on land is as slaves,” writes Leah Penniman in her book Farming While Black. “To learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing,"
No acres, no mule
The pendulum of social justice and oppression swings back and forth throughout history.
After the Civil War, the government promised some formerly enslaved people 40 acres of land to work as their own, a pledge known as "40 acres and a mule." But the promise was rescinded after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Slavery's formal abolishment was then followed by a century of racial discrimination, severely limiting Black farmers' opportunities to become landowners.
The high point of Black farming and land ownership was in 1920 when Black farmers made up 14% of all farm operators in the U.S. That share has been falling ever since. Black farmers lost an estimated $326 billion of land during the 20th century due to the USDA's discriminatory lending policies. Since the 1990s, the share of Black farmers has hovered around 1%.
While remedying this injustice is still controversial, the discrimination itself is well-documented. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that while the USDA was "instrumental in raising the economic, educational and social levels of thousands of farm and rural and families … [a] quarter of a million Negro families stand as a glaring exception to this picture of progress." Discriminatory lending practices left Black farmers without the means to diversify and invest in their operations. As a result, Black-operated farms are less resilient, and the economic and social gaps between white and Black farmers continue to widen.
How to right a wrong
Frustrations abound as we continue to negotiate how to address the past.
In 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which included a program to provide debt relief to Black farmers. The ARPA was challenged in court as discriminatory due to the exclusion of white farmers. It has been replaced by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — a much smaller financial commitment that avoids language explicitly identifying racial groups. Last fall, the USDA invited public comments on the assistance programs' implementation, generating submissions which, if heeded, offer a first step to rebuilding farmers of color's trust in the USDA.
However, some activists are critical of the new offering. One advocate for Black farmers told Reuters the IRA proposal "does not even approach a racial equity model that this administration and the USDA has been speaking about since the beginning of its term." Dollar for dollar, the relief programs offer only a sliver of what Black farmers have lost.
And there is the softened language. The ARPA clearly called out racial discrimination, validating the lived experience of Black farmers and their descendants. While the IRA proposal offers some relief for Black farmers, its compromises hamstring true equality by glossing over the reason it's necessary in the first place.