By Dekera Greene Rodriguez, Tracy Lloyd McCurty and Eddie Slaughter
Rodriguez is Co-Founder of Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund. McCurty is Executive Director of the Black Belt Justice Center. Slaughter is a farmer from Buena Vista, Georgia.
A multigenerational, multidisciplinary coalition comprised of black legacy and beginning farmers, attorneys, civil rights advocates, and community-based organizations in service of black rural and urban farming communities, worked with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s policy team to develop a comprehensive policy plan to dismantle structural racism within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and to regenerate the African American agricultural land base. Sen. Warren’s impressive plan resulted from her community-based participatory approach to policymaking as well as her commitment to the principles of deep listening, cultural and professional humility, knowledge democracy, and community service.
Several black elder farmers who participated in the community-based policymaking process expressed that Sen. Warren was the first presidential candidate in more than twenty years who listened to them and developed thoughtful, detail-oriented solutions to eradicate the economic suffering(s) and generational trauma their families endured from systemic institutional USDA discrimination. Specifically, our coalition is enthused about the transformative, community-centered leadership paradigm that continues to inform Senator Warren’s policy platforms rooted in racial equity, economic justice, and generative wealth creation for African American rural families and communities.
The Black Farmers Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign seeks immediate debt relief and the abolishment of county committees that continue to discriminate against black farmers. Black farmer litigants currently have an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia seeking debt relief; so many have died and failed to see justice. The goal of the historic Pigford v. Glickman class action discrimination lawsuit was to provide black farmers debt relief, monetary compensation, and priority of services. More than twenty years after Pigford, black farmers carry crushing debt, precluding them from priority of services. The USDA continues to offset black farmers’ Social Security, disability, and subsidy payments to cover outstanding debts. Black farmers in foreclosure for decades fear that their deaths will result in the forcible removal of their loved ones from their family homeplaces.
Pigford farmers sought to own their land free and clear. Of the more than $1 billion in damages paid by the USDA, only 4.8% went to debt relief. Pigford was an illusion. The sticker-shock of a $1 billion settlement hid the truth that $50,000 cash payments meant little for farmers who owed multiple times that value. Class Counsel (black farmers’ attorneys) derived the $50,000 through conjecture— Tuskegee experiment survivors received $37,500; they presumed $50,000 was enough for the Black farmer.
While white farmers rely on USDA for their livelihoods and see it as the manifestation of Abraham Lincoln’s “People’s Department,” generations of black farmers see the institution as the “Last Plantation.” USDA earned the moniker as its insidious racial discrimination represented another era of antagonism against black agrarians. First, the back-breaking labor, cruelty, and expropriation on white plantations through chattel slavery, then the humiliating toil of tenant-farming and sharecropping where black workers never got ahead, and finally the USDA shuffle denying Black farmers loans, granting loans late, and/or instituting supervised accounts to undermine Black farmers’ efforts at self-sustainability and self-determination. The shuffle ultimately led to states of insecurity, foreclosure, hastening of illness, stress, and death for many black farmers.
USDA acknowledged their decades of nefarious practices and discrimination against black farmers but patently refused to refrain from continued discrimination. Even Judge Paul Friedman expressed disappointment.
He wrote: “The Consent Decree does not… require the USDA to take any steps to ensure that county commissioners who have discriminated against class members in the past are no longer in the position of approving loans. Nor does it provide a mechanism to ensure that future discrimination complaints are timely investigated and resolved so that the USDA does not practice the same discrimination against African American farmers that led to the filing of this lawsuit…The absence of any such provisions has led to strong, heart-felt objections. It also has caused the Court concern […] The Court cannot guarantee class members that they will never experience discrimination at the hands of the USDA again, and the Consent Decree does not purport to make such a guarantee.”
Sen. Warren’s plans for the USDA go a long way to prove goodwill to black farmers searching for a People’s Department.