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House bill would bar racial favoritism at USDA

Motivated by opposition to $4 billion in debt relief for minority farmers, two Republican representatives announced legislation on Thursday to prevent the USDA from considering race or gender in operating its programs. “All American farmers constitute a minority, and they are hurting right now as a direct result of the pandemic,” said one of the sponsors, Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah.

The bill would prevent actions such as the USDA loan forgiveness plan for socially disadvantaged farmers that was authorized by Congress in early March, said a spokesperson for Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, the bill’s other sponsor. In a statement, Tiffany said, “It is fundamentally unfair for the government to treat people differently based on immutable characteristics.”

Debt relief has stirred emotions in farm country, which is often politically conservative. Advocates say it would buffer the effect of decades of discriminatory practices — the USDA acknowledged bias against Black farmers in the so-called Pigford settlement of 1999 — and help compensate for the lion’s share of $23 billion in pandemic aid to agriculture in the past year going to large, predominantly white farmers. Foes say loan forgiveness, by leaving out whites, is reverse discrimination.

Some 95% of U.S. farmers are white, according to USDA data. Hispanics make up 3% of farmers. Native American farmers are more numerous than Black farmers, but each group represents less than 2% of the U.S. total. A century ago, one in six farmers was Black. Activists say racism drove Blacks out of farming.

Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are among the socially disadvantaged farmers whose outstanding USDA debts would be erased under the loan forgiveness provision, which applies to loans made directly by the USDA or through lenders with USDA loan guarantees. The debt relief plan was part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus package approved on party line votes in Congress in early March. Owens voted against the bill; Tiffany did not vote.

Owens and Tiffany said their bill would prohibit the USDA from discriminating or providing preferential treatment to anyone based on race, color, national origin, or gender in hiring, contracts, and programs. A former professional football player, Owens, who is Black, said his grandfather, “a respected farmer in the 1950s and ’60s Black middle class … would be horrified” by the debt relief program, a “modern-day form of racial segregation.”

Prospects are murky for the Agriculture Civil Rights and Equality (ACRE) bill sponsored by Owens and Tiffany. They are members of the minority party during an era of political polarization.

House Agriculture chairman David Scott said last week that he would draft legislation to ban discriminatory policies at the USDA and improve Black farmer income. “We will also have things in this bill that will increase the number of farmers we have, that acreage [is] reopened,” said Scott, the first Black to chair the committee. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he will create an equity commission to “identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist” in USDA programs.

Companion “Justice for Black Farmers” bills, pending in the House and Senate, would create a land grant system for Black farmers, establish an independent board to investigate complaints of discrimination within the USDA, oversee the farmer-elected county committees that guide operations at local USDA offices, and boost funding to resolve “heirs property” issues.

Tiffany and Owens voted on Jan. 6 to overturn President Biden’s election.

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