How farmers of color are defending debt relief to hold onto their land
“As I sat in my farmhouse by candlelight during the dead of winter, it became very clear to me. My lights had been turned off. Federal officers were knocking at my door threatening to confiscate my equipment. Foreclosure signs were being posted on my property. Stress had destroyed my family. There was no money. All of this at no fault of my own.”
These are the words of our client, the President of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) Dr. John Boyd Jr. as he testified before Congress on the matter of discrimination at USDA in the year 2000. As a fourth-generation farmer, Boyd had set out to start his own farming business in the 1980’s. But when he sought government loans to pay for basic farming supplies, he — like many farmers of color — faced obstacles from the very government agency that was supposed to support him.
When he went to the Farmers Home Administration (now known as Farm Service Agency), which distributes USDA loans, his applications were denied year after year. He was called racial slurs, spit on by USDA representatives, and watched as his loan applications were thrown in the trash. The loan officers would only meet with him and other Black farmers on Wednesdays, a restriction that did not apply to white farmers. And when he did finally get some loans, they had paternalistic strings attached, restricting which supplies to get from which sellers. Because of this discrimination, his farm business struggled while he watched white farmers in his county thrive who had access to those same government supports that he was repeatedly denied.
Realizing other Black farmers were facing similar hardships, Boyd “ceased to be simply a farmer and became a farming activist.” He founded the National Black Farmers Association to advocate for farmers of color. He repeatedly testified before Congress to bring light to the issue. And he joined 400 other Black farmers in suing the USDA for discrimination and ignoring civil rights complaints in Pigford v. Glickman, a class action discrimination lawsuit against USDA. More than three decades later, he is still fighting for farmers of color to be able to hold onto their land.
John teamed up with Kara Brewer Boyd, a farmer and member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. She faced similar injustices as a Native American farmer, enduring discrimination when accessing USDA loans. She founded the Association of American Indian Farmers (AAIF) to increase outreach, advocacy, and technical assistance to Native American farmers and ranchers. AAIF also seeks to promote investment in support of Native American farmers and ranchers.
We are proud to represent John Boyd as head of NBFA and Kara Brewer Boyd as head of AAIF in their defense of debt relief for farmers of color. As movement-oriented legal advocates, we aim to support groups like NBFA and AAIF with the legal tools necessary to win their broader goals — in this case, to make sure discrimination in agriculture is meaningfully addressed so that farmers of color can thrive.
Towards the beginning of the last century, Black people owned almost 20 million acres of farmland. About 90% of that land has been taken since. And while there were almost one million Black farmers about a century ago in 1920, in 2019 there were only 45,508. What accounts for the sharp decline?
First, racially coded New Deal era laws attacked loan programs to small farmers, many of whom were Black, while heavily subsidizing larger farms owned by white farmowners, pushing Black farmers out of the market. After Brown v. Board of Education mandated integration, Southern elites turned to federal agencies to uphold the racial order, including through USDA lending. Loan discrimination was an explicit tool to kick Black farmers off the land and disempower Black people. The inter-generational effects on Black wealth accumulation are profound: the legally sanctioned stolen land between 1920 and 1997 amounts to about $326 billion.
COVID-19 only exacerbated the issue: because of historical and current discrimination, extreme market disruptions disproportionately affected farmers of color and the first pandemic relief almost entirely went to white farmers.
Many farmers of color were pushed out of farming altogether. Those who lost their land were unable to pass it on to future generations.
Acknowledging the way historical discrimination has left farmers of color especially vulnerable to foreclosure during the economic strife caused by the pandemic, Congress included an important measure in the 2021 stimulus package called the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA): provide targeted debt relief to farmers of color who hold certain USDA loans. Listed under Section 1005 of ARPA, this provision intends to prevent farmers of color from losing their land.
This debt relief is an important step in beginning to remedy a long history of government discrimination. But the program was immediately challenged under the guise of “reverse discrimination” by white farmers, half of them backed by infamously bigoted Trump administration alumnus Stephen Miller.
An ongoing legal battle spanning thirteen lawsuits across the country ensued. In representing John and Kara Boyd as the heads of NBFA and AAIF, respectively, we aim to support their fight to preserve a program to help farmers of color hold onto their land.
In the lawsuits, USDA has been defending the constitutionality of the program and astonishingly confesses to its own history of institutional racism as the reason for why debt relief is needed. In its latest brief defending debt relief, USDA outlines how farmers of color faced discrimination by the agency at every stage of the loan application process, from application assistance to approval to loan servicing. For example, a loan officer might intentionally delay the approval process or renege on a promised loan to a farmer of color. The loans that farmers of color did ultimately receive were worse than those of white farmers: too little, too late, and with too many restrictions attached. Sometimes loans were placed in a ‘supervised’ account where a (typically white) county supervisor had to sign off on any withdrawn funds. If a farmer received reduced or delayed loans at the end of the planting season, after having bought necessary supplies to run their farm business, that could prevent them from paying back their debts, making foreclosure ever more likely. Without government funding, farmers of color couldn’t substantially grow their farm businesses, leading to higher rates of foreclosure. Many farmers of color were pushed out of farming altogether. Those who lost their land were unable to pass it on to future generations.
The few who remain generally have smaller farms, lower incomes, and less financial stability. Since farmers of color were unable to accumulate wealth at the same rate as white farmers, it’s harder for them to access government and private loans today. For example, the COVID relief to farmers was based on acreage. Because farmers of color have much less acreage, they saw very little of that funding and it almost all went to white farmers. As part of a vicious cycle, this puts them even more at risk of losing their land today.
We submitted amicus briefs to strengthen USDA’s defense of the program with the stories of real farmers impacted by discrimination, like that of John and Kara Boyd. We also make an important clarification to USDA’s argument: discrimination is not merely a historical relic, but also a present-day reality for farmers of color. In its briefs supporting Section 1005, USDA fails to admit that it continues to discriminate against famers on the basis of race to protect itself from more lawsuits. Yet our clients’ experiences prove otherwise. John and Kara Boyd regularly receive calls from members of their organizations to help address civil rights violations. Deydra Steans is a fourth-generation farmer and one of the thousands of Black farmers who was recently denied USDA loans. She has been forced to put one of her family’s farms up for sale or else face seizure from the IRS. In 2021, USDA denied direct loans to 20% of all farmers of color and 42% of Black farmers, compared to 9% of white farmers. USDA thus egregiously ignores how it continues to create and entrench racial inequities.
This history and ongoing practice of discrimination is precisely why our clients have sought to intervene as defendants in the lawsuits. Originally, our clients were amici, or ‘friends of the court,’ meaning they had a stake in the outcome of the suit and supported USDA’s argument with their own evidence. But then USDA proposed making debt relief race-blind if the court finds Section 1005 unconstitutional, which would expand the targeted debt relief to anyone with outstanding, qualifying loans. This drove our clients to seek to intervene in the two leading lawsuits and become defendants. Our clients know that relief funds that do not target their members will not end up benefiting them and, in this case, could lead to further land loss.
John and Kara Boyd explain why expanding aid will only worsen existing inequities: “Congress passed debt relief for farmers of color to address a specific problem: USDA’s discrimination against farmers of color. Expanding debt relief to all farmers will only exacerbate that problem. If government funding has historically flown disproportionately to white farmers, why would this be any different? Race-neutral debt relief would only uphold existing inequities.” In May 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted our motion to intervene and now our clients can represent their own interests.
While the court battle continues, the clock is ticking for farmers of color.
In fact, our brief points to the USDA’s own descriptions of past attempts to remedy racial discrimination that were not successful. Administrative barriers prevented farmers of color from receiving money from past settlements, like Pigford and Keespseagle, that aimed to compensate them for the discrimination they face. Farmers of color come to Boyd to request help with discriminatory treatment by USDA representatives precisely because they do not trust USDA to properly investigate or respond to those incidents — and for good reason. USDA has a checkered history when it comes to civil rights complaints. Even after a new office dedicated to civil rights was established, USDA continued to ignore and improperly dismiss complaints, nor did it hold wrongdoers accountable. USDA’s Inspector General has repeatedly directed the agency to correct these issues, but USDA has not been in full compliance. In so doing, USDA actively conceals ongoing racism within its ranks and policies, while proclaiming a “new era for civil rights.”
While the court battle continues, the clock is ticking for farmers of color. The pandemic has enhanced the risk of land theft, and farmers of color are facing an imminent wave of foreclosures and bankruptcies. If allowed to continue, the debt relief program will immediately halt those harms by forgiving qualifying government loans. As temporary relief, the program also borrows critical time for the government to confront broader concerns of agricultural racism.
Regardless of the outcome, farmers of color will persevere. They’ll do the same thing they’ve always done: keep fighting. We will continue to fight alongside them.