The USDA has discriminated against Black farmers for years. Can this legislation bring about change?

The average eligible Black farmer receives less than half the USDA subsidies of an eligible white farmer

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 10, 2021 10:25PM (EDT)

Shot of a young man holding a crate of freshly picked produce on a farm (Getty Images)
Shot of a young man holding a crate of freshly picked produce on a farm (Getty Images)

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) on Wednesday introduced new legislation that aims to lift "the veil of secrecy" surrounding the race and gender of farm subsidy recipients, with the ultimate goal of eradicating decades of discrimination against Black farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

"Due to decades of discriminatory federal policies within the USDA, Black farmers have been consistently denied opportunities in farm assistance and lending," Booker said in a press release. "This has led many Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland and robbed their families of building and passing on intergenerational wealth that the land represented." 

According to Booker, while farmers of color were able to receive debt relief through President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, "the fight for racial equity in agriculture is far from over, and we must ensure adequate transparency and fairness in USDA programs going forward."

The proposed Farm Subsidy Transparency Act of 2021 would require the USDA to track and publicly disclose the race and gender of all individuals who receive farm assistance through the agency, as well as the amount.

This includes assistance through farm subsidies, farm loans, crop insurance and ad hoc disaster assistance — including through the Coronavirus Food Assistance program — plus aid from forestry and conservation programs. 

Notably, the bill would also require the USDA to disclose the race and gender of individuals who were rejected when seeking assistance from the agency.

The USDA has been accused of discriminatory practices against farmers of color for decades, and it has acknowledged its shortcomings

"We will over the next four years to do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers may exist at the Department of Agriculture directed at Black farmers," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told Congress in March. 

In 1920, 14% of all American farmers were Black; by 1997, that figure had fallen to less than 1%. That same year, The Congressional Black Caucus held a forum on discrimination against Black farmers, which was succeeded by a historic discrimination complaint against the USDA.

Nevertheless, inequity persisted. For example, in 2012, Black farmers received $64 million in farm subsidies, while white farmers received $8.1 billion.

In 2017, the USDA's practices came under even more scrutiny after the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that farms owned by white nationalist Richard Spencer and his family were heavily subsidized by the federal government.

"From 2008 through 2015, the Spencers received $2 million in U.S. farm subsidy payments, according to federal data," reporter Lance Williams wrote. 

And while an eligible Black farmer receives an average of $7,755 in commodity subsidies, an eligible white farmer receives $17,206 on average. 

According to Rush, 99% of the Market Facilitation Payments — which were made by the USDA to offset the effects of foreign retaliatory tariffs during former President Donald Trump's trade war — went to white farmers. Plus, 97% of Coronavirus Food Assistance Payments made to address the COVID-19 pandemic went to white farmers.  

"It is critically important that we bring any remaining discriminatory lending behavior at USDA to a screeching halt," Rush said in a press release. "In order to do so, we need to shine a bright light on USDA's lending practices so that we can clearly see, understand and address existing inequities This bill is a timely and necessary response to decades of discrimination against Black farmers at USDA, which was a major factor in the decline in the number of Black farmers from nearly one million a century ago, to less than 50,000 today." 

The National Black Farmers Association has applauded the proposed legislation. In a public statement, John Boyd, the organization's president and founder, said everyone is aware that white farmers receive "the lion's share" of these benefits. 

"Until we have full transparency, we can't see the full extent to which USDA programs continue to perpetuate the agency's long history of racism," Boyd said. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Agriculture Bobby Rush Cory Booker Farmers Food Racism Richard Spencer Usda