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Equity Commission to examine USDA programs and policies for bias

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh will co-chair a congressionally approved Equity Commission to address racial discrimination within the USDA and its programs, announced the Agriculture Department. The USDA has been called “the last plantation” because of racial bias in its operations; it paid $2.2 billion to Black farmers and their descendants in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010.

“The Equity Commission is an important step in dismantling barriers historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services, especially with regard to access and inclusion in USDA agricultural programs and services,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. In March, Vilsack appointed Dewayne Goldmon, executive director of the National Black Growers Council, as USDA’s first senior adviser for racial equity.

In March, as part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, lawmakers gave their consent to “one or more equity commissions that will address racial equity issues within the Department of Agriculture and its programs” and roughly $5 million for its work. The commission will have 15 members, along with another 15 members on a subcommittee devoted to issues of concern to agriculture, said the USDA.

The commission was included in Section 1006 of the package that provided $1.01 billion to improve land access, resolve heirs’ property issues and provide legal aid to socially disadvantaged farmers. It followed Section 1005, which allotted $4 billion to forgive debts owed by minority farmers on loans made directly by the USDA or by banks with USDA loan guarantees. The debt relief plan was at a standstill due to lawsuits by white farmers who say it is reverse discrimination.

Senate Agriculture Committee member Cory Booker said early this month that he was trying to include language in the “build back better” bill to “provide debt forgiveness immediately” rather than wait for a court ruling.

The Equity Commission is expected to issue an interim report and provide “actionable recommendations” within 12 months of setting to work. A final report would be completed within a two-year time frame, said the USDA. Vilsack and Bronaugh, the first Black to serve as deputy secretary, will choose a co-chair to serve alongside Bronaugh in leading the commission.

“Today’s announcement of an Equity Commission to remedy inequalities in any program, policy, system, structure or practice at USDA is a step in the right direction,” said House Agriculture chairman David Scott. “For too long, discriminatory practices have been allowed at all levels of the department.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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