A changing landscape for America’s Black farmers

February 17, 2021
Jacob Lund/iStock

By Todd Post

Land is a precious asset to farmers—and, of course, it is essential to producing crops and raising livestock. Land is also wealth for farmers to pass on to their heirs, and it may make up most or all of a farmer’s estate.

Decisions about the distribution of land at the end of the Civil War were critically important, particularly because most Blacks and a significant number of whites worked as farmers. The U.S. government had promised formerly enslaved people land—as just mentioned, land is essential to growing food to eat and to sell to pay for necessities.

But the government did not honor its pledge. Instead, large plantations were given back to their former owners—secessionist whites—while the people who had been enslaved got nothing. This was not the last time the U.S. government failed Black farmers.

Bread for the World Institute has emphasized the connection between hunger and the U.S.  racial wealth gap for several years. The denial of land ownership after the Civil War set the stage for the disproportionate rates of hunger in Black communities today. The median wealth of a typical Black family is 12 cents for every dollar held by a white family, according to recent data.

Wealth means options to invest in the future and break out of the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. Without wealth, even a small savings account, any loss of family income can lead directly to inability to buy groceries.  

More recently, Black farmers continued to be stripped of wealth by being deliberately excluded, through discriminatory policies, from federally secured loans and other government assistance available to white farmers. As recently as the 1990s, they were routinely denied loans for which they qualified or subjected to lengthy processing delays that made it impossible to get their crops planted on time.

A class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was finally settled in 2010. The U.S. government made a perfunctory effort to compensate Black farmers who had been subjected to discrimination or their heirs, but many claimants were denied compensation or awarded sums that did not make them whole.

The delays and the inadequate compensation amounts meant that by the time the suit was settled, many had lost their land, livelihood, and legacy.

Now, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the agricultural landscape for Black farmers may be about to change. In 2020, as the 116th Congress was drawing to a close, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, designed “to address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers, to require reforms within the Department of Agriculture to prevent future discrimination.”

One of the provisions of the law would help restore the land base that Black farmers lost over centuries of discrimination by providing land grants of up to 160 acres to eligible Black farmers and Black aspiring farmers at no cost to them.

In addition, the act would create a Civil Rights Oversight board in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent further discrimination of the kinds that denied Black farmers access to credit and other forms of assistance, making it impossible for them to farm successfully.

The 116th Congress ended without holding any hearings for the Justice for Black Farmers Act. But Booker, Warren, and Gillibrand reintroduced the act in the new 117th Congress. The proposal will also undoubtedly inform the content of the next farm bill. The farm bill is not due to be reauthorized until 2023, but hearings are held well in advance and could begin as early as 2021.

It is rare that a major change in the structure of U.S. farm policy would be made in any legislation, so the three senators may have introduced their bill early to get out in front of the farm bill debate.

The farm bill is always a major focus of Bread for the World’s advocacy, and we also pay attention to legislation that would provide reparations or compensation to Americans who are descended from enslaved people.

Racism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of U.S. society that no single piece of legislation can respond to all the dimensions of the damage it has caused. But as a way to begin trying to compensate for the theft and denial of Black wealth, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would be a very good place to start.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

The denial of land ownership after the Civil War set the stage for the disproportionate rates of hunger in Black communities today. 

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