Shiny Normal Thing! Cory Booker & Friends Will Fix Decades Of Discrimination Against Black Farmers

Post-Racial America
Urban Sprout Farms, Lakewood Heights, Georgia. USDA photo.

Want yet another reason for Georgia to elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate, so things can actually get done? Look no farther than this Mother Jones article on the Justice for Black Farmers Act, to be introduced in the Senate at the end of this month by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and cosponsors Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. Nothing like three of our favorite 2020 presidential candidates getting together to correct a historic injustice. MoJo reporter Tom Philpott handily sums up the problem. Following the Civil War and the dismantling of Reconstruction, African-American farmers still managed to be a significant part of American agriculture, so the forces of white supremacy had to dismantle the gains Black farmers had made:

By the 1910s, nearly a million Black farmers, a seventh of the nation's total, owned 41.4 million acres of land, mostly in the South. That turned out to be a peak. Since then, due largely to lingering white supremacy and the racist machinations within the Department of Agriculture, the number of Black farmers has plunged by 98 percent. The remaining few managed to hold on to just 10 percent of that hard-won acreage.

Booker et al. are determined to set some of that straight with their bill, which aims at eliminating historic discrimination within the Department of Agriculture, shoring up existing Black family farms, and attracting new Black farmers to the business. Just think —Donald Trump tried to scare suburban white ladies with the prospect of Cory Booker moving in next door, while Booker was actually headed farther out of town.

A centerpiece of the legislation is the creation of a new office in the USDA, the Equitable Land Access Service, which would include

a fund that devotes $8 billion annually to buying farmland on the open market and granting it to new and existing Black farmers, with the goal of making 20,000 grants per year over nine years, with maximum allotments of 160 acres. It would also fund agriculture-focused historically Black colleges and universities as well and nonprofits like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust to help identify land for the USDA to purchase, and "help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training, and provide other assistance including support for development of farmer cooperatives," the bill's summary states.

What? Giving away land? Sounds like some kind of socialism! Except for how that's literally what the USA did again and again during the westward expansion, like when the Homestead Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln (few people know he was a Republican) in 1862. That law alone distributed about 270 million acres to settlers, many of them new European immigrants, whose descendants now like to rail against "government handouts" as they collect price supports and subsidies for Trump's trade war.

While the US was grabbing land in the West (sorry about the near-extermination of the bison, Native America) and giving it to new white settlers, it was also very busy rescinding its Civil War promise of "40 acres and a mule" to Black Americans who'd been freed (and frequently freed themselves) from slavery. And then came the systemic squeezing of Black farmers, from Jim Crow through this new modern century of ours when supposedly discrimination is all over.

You bet your ass it's "reparations," and a much-needed repair, too, even if no one's using that hot-button word.

The 19th century's great land transfers, which generated trillions of dollars in wealth for beneficiaries and their heirs, "effectively precluded African Americans from participating," said Thomas Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M and 2020 MacArthur fellow, who participated in the bill's drafting. Meanwhile, the near-complete wipeout of Black farmland ownership since the early 20th century—driven largely by racist federal and state policies—represents a transfer of wealth from Black to primarily white Americans "conservatively" worth $300 billion, Thomas added. That handover contributes to a persistent racial wealth gap—today, the median white family is 12 times wealthier than its Black counterpart.

Beyond the land grant proposal, the bill would also establish a "Farm Conservation Corps" that would help young people from low-income areas get agricultural internships, training, and academic support so they could get the skills needed for a career in farming or ranching. And for existing Black farmers, the bill would provide legal assistance and protections for their property if they're pursuing redress for discrimination by the USDA.

Damn, this is just a very exciting proposal. We'd almost venture that it's the sort of thing that farm-state Republicans might have gotten behind, at least before the party went full rancid. But for it to pass, we need the Senate.

[Mother Jones / ProPublica / Sen. Cory Booker / Photo: USDA, 2018. Public domain]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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