This post has been updated to include a comment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the heart of Arkansas, Abraham Carpenter, a Black farmer, grows fruits and vegetables across 1,500 acres alongside 35 of his family members. The multi-generational farm was started in 1973 by Abraham’s mother, Katie Carpenter, with the planting of just one acre of peas. But this year, heavy rain and floods destroyed hundreds of acres of the family’s crops, including turnips, collards, and watermelon. Before that, COVID-19 and its near shutdown of the economy and food supply chains threatened their livelihood. Carpenter estimates he lost millions during the pandemic.
“It’s been terrible,” he said. “When it comes to farming, anytime you have a difficult year once or twice in a row, that can set you back for many, many years.”
Carpenter owes $200,000 in loans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. He’s one of an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 farmers of color that was expecting his debt to be erased when Congress passed the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act in March. It was one of the biggest pieces of legislation for Black farmers ever passed — authorizing $4 billion under the American Rescue Plan to forgive 120 percent of USDA loan debt for farmers of color.
The payments were supposed to be made in June. But since the act passed, at least 13 lawsuits have been filed across the country, claiming reverse discrimination and racism. As a result, three injunctions stopping the payouts have been issued and the money has been in limbo ever since. Now, many legal experts say it’s unlikely the debt relief will be paid out as was originally authorized.
“There is a decent to good chance that the lawsuits will invalidate this debt relief program and prevent it from taking effect,” Eric Berger, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Nebraska, told Grist.
Lawsuits against the program were filed in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, and Minnesota, all claiming reverse racism and a violation of constitutional rights. “Because plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm,” one complaint filed with the U.S. District Court of Wisconsin reads.
The Emergency Relief Act was created to address both the historic systemic racism that has put farmers of color behind their white colleagues, and the unequal distribution of COVID-19 relief money, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post after the bill’s passing in March.
Black farmers received $20.8 million of Trump’s COVID-19 relief money for farmers — just 0.1 percent of the nearly $26 billion in aid. This is despite that group making up 1.3 percent of all U.S. farmers. Meanwhile, some 99 percent of Congress’ COVID-related aid for agriculture went to white farmers.
Kate Waters, a press secretary for the USDA, told Grist that the agency plans to fight the lawsuits. “The reality is the deck has been stacked against Black farmers, who for generations have been denied access to land and capital,” she said. To address the issue, Waters said, the agency created a newly-established equity commission that will conduct a comprehensive structural review.
But last month, the Department of Justice passed on a chance to appeal one of the three injunctions. Corey Lea, executive director of the Cowtown Foundation, an organization that partners with law firms to get justice for disadvantaged farmers, says it’s “business as usual” for Secretary Vilsack. “He has no intention of providing debt relief for Black farmers,” Lea told Grist.
Legal experts say the situation is tricky.
If the case reaches the Supreme Court, some feel it’s a sure loss given the makeup of the current justices. And there is some concern that the case could inadvertently threaten affirmative action as a whole in other governmental programs. “Given constitutional precedent and today’s very conservative federal judiciary, [the Biden administration] needs to act very carefully when it designs programs that try to offer aid only to particular racial groups,” said Berger.
“Unless Congress can devise a more flexible, nuanced program,” he noted, “this debt relief will be on constitutional thin ice.”
Lloyd Wright, a Black farmer in Virginia and former director of the USDA’s civil rights office, is proposing changing the language of the act so there’s a better shot at farmers actually getting money. Instead of being based on a farmer’s race, debt relief from the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act would be determined in other more flexible ways based on discrimination. “If we don’t change the definition, farmers won’t be getting debt relief,” Wright told the Center for Public Integrity.
For many, the money was a milestone in a decades-long fight for justice for farmers of color. The USDA has a history of disproportionately granting loans and access to governmental assistance programs to white farmers over farmers of color, contributing to a 90 percent decline of Black-owned farm land between 1910 and 1997. (Ownership for white farmers declined just 2 percent over the same period.) And there’s evidence that USDA discrimination continues today. In 2020, 37 percent of Black applicants were granted loans from the agency, compared to 71 percent of white applicants, according to an analysis by Politico.
For Carpenter, the disappointment goes beyond the current holdup. This isn’t the first time he was expecting relief only for it not to show up. Carpenter was part of the class action Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit more than 20 years ago, which claimed discrimination by the USDA against Black farmers. The settlement in that case authorized up to $50,000 plus debt relief for each farmer. But like many of his colleagues, Carpenter never got the money.
“When the American Rescue Plan came into place, I really thought that was a great idea,” he said. “I thought it was something that would be set in stone. I used to always say, ‘It would take an act of Congress for Black farmers to get paid.’ But I did not realize that even [then], they still could throw rocks in your plans and mess up everything.”
Legal experts said it could be months or years before everything is sorted out with the injunctions and lawsuits filed against the relief act.
When Grist first reached out to Carpenter for an interview, it took a while for him to respond. He was hesitant about talking to the media. “I’ve been discouraged by the fact that I’ve done probably over 200 interviews,” he said, “and have been vocal about all the wrong that’s been going on, and nothing has really happened to change anything.”