Who Else Is COVID Relief Bill Helping? Black Farmers, Finally!
Jim Chew, owner of Forever Grateful Ranch, Chowchilla California. USDA Photo

As Yr Wonkette has been reminding you, there's a lot more to like in the COVID relief bill the Senate passed Saturday than just the $1,400 individual payments and the ongoing help for unemployed workers. Among the very good ideas in the bill is a $5 billion package of debt relief and other assistance for Black, Latino, and Indigenous farmers, which will do a lot to begin making up for America's history -- some of which is so recent that it's actually now — of discrimination against Black farmers. The debt relief was included in the bill through the efforts of Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and House Agriculture Committee chair Rep. David Scott.

As we noted back in November, when Booker and Senate colleagues introduced a precursor to the provision that made it into the American Rescue Plan, the current problems faced by Black farmers are a direct result of systematic racism for most of the last century, as a story in Mother Jonessummarized:

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.

Warnock's bill, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, was incorporated into the larger relief act, and some agriculture experts are saying it's among the biggest civil rights gains for Black farmers since the original Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So what does this thing do? Debt relief is the biggest chunk of the provision, with $4 billion going to loans for Black, Hispanic, and Native American farmers; the loans would cover 120 percent of eligible applicants' debt. As the AgriPulse blog explains,

The additional 20% is intended to pay off the taxes the estimated 15,000 farmers would owe as a result of getting the payments. A slight change made in the Senate version could allow USDA to reduce the payments for the largest loans: The original House version said the payments must be "equal to" 120% of the indebtedness; the Senate changed that to "up to" 120%.

Not surprisingly, the provision met with Republican opposition; during the long vote-a-rama process, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) complained it's just not fair to assume that all minority farmers were in debt because of discrimination, because maybe it's only nearly all of 'em. And what if some of the help goes to people who don't deserve it enough? That would surely be a first in the history of COVID relief bills!

"There is no income test, no asset test, it doesn't matter whether you are rich or poor. You don't have to have experienced any harm of any kind whatsoever, including from COVID. You just have to be the right race," Toomey said.

"This bill is supposed to be about COVID relief and helping the people who are adversely affected by the economics of the lockdown. Instead we're handing out money based exclusively on race."

After all, it's really racist to target aid at people who have historically been discriminated against, because maybe one or two Black farmers have never once experienced racism ever.

Warnock wasn't having any of that, thank you very much: He said the debt relief

has everything to do about COVID-19 relief. The terrible thing about this pandemic is that it has both illuminated and exacerbated long-standing disparities rooted in our racial past.

For too long, farmers of color have been left to fend for themselves, not getting the support they deserve from the USDA, making it even more difficult for them to recover from this pandemic.

Toomey's amendment to strip the funding out of the package failed on a party-line vote.

In addition to the debt relief, the bill also includes $1 billion aimed at providing minority farmers with tech assistance, financial education, and help with untangling the complicated legal legacy of land ownership — historically, many Black farmers didn't have clear title to their land, thanks again to fuckery by banks and the government, so when they died, their land ended up being split among multiple heirs. That portion of the funding also includes $5 million to set up a racial equity commission within the Department of Agriculture, aimed at eliminating remaining practices that have contributed to discrimination.

As the Washington Post points out, this package of debt relief is far bigger than the $2.3 billion the USDA paid out in settlements for the two Pigford class-action lawsuits aimed at addressing USDA discrimination in the 1980s. Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, noted that just under five percent of the first Pigford settlement went to debt relief, and that "The vast majority of Black farmers were left with unconscionable debt and no legal recourse to save their land,."

Lloyd Wright, who ran the USDA's Office of Civil Rights under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told the Post that while

the stimulus is the most significant piece of legislation for Black farmers in more than half a century, he cautioned that how it's administered still leaves room for error.

"It looks like plain English: We're going to forgive the debt for people of color. But for people who don't want to do it? They will try to figure out how not to do it," he said. "If they really forgive the debt with this bill, it's the greatest thing ever."

So now it's up to the Agriculture Department to make sure it is done right, and for the press and voters to keep a close eye on the USDA to make sure of it. It would really be good to see a ProPublica investigation find that, instead of the usual horrors, the USDA is doing right by Black farmers for a change.

Here, have all our What's In the Rescue Plan? posts

It's really a big heckin' deal, isn't it?

[AgriPulse / WaPo / Mother Jones / ProPublica]

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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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