The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to redress decades of loan discrimination by handing out $4 billion in payments to an estimated 16,000 Black farmers has been thwarted by a group of white farmers who have sued the USDA claiming its reverse discrimination.
Last week, a U.S. District court issued a temporary restraining order on the program—which is funded as part of the American Rescue Plan—as it determines whether or not white farmers are being discriminated against. Further, it was ruled that the federal government had failed to prove that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has discriminated against people of color.
The injunction is the third to result from litigation filed in seven states, including Tennessee, on behalf of white farmers in the past month, according to court records.
In yet another surprise move, in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Visack, the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers of America, and the National Rural Lenders Association, threatened to withhold credit from farmers of color if the USDA moved forward with the program.
The program —initially introduced by Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock— would benefit Black farmers in a way no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to debt relief, the funds would provide other forms of assistance in acquiring land including grants, training and education.
Due to systemic racism, Black farmers in the nation have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, and while blacks represented 14% of the nation’s farmers a century ago, they stand at fewer than 2% today.
Justice department lawyers maintain the government can employ race-based exclusions if they are “narrowly tailored” to address a specific wrong and that the USDA initiative for farmers of color meets that constitutional threshold
“Congress considered strong evidence that discriminatory loan practices at USDA have placed minority farmers at a significant disadvantage today: these farmers generally own smaller farms, have disproportionately higher delinquency rates, and are at a significantly higher risk of foreclosure than non-minority farmers,” the lawyers argued.
“Congress found that minority farmers’ diminished position was only made worse by a global pandemic that disproportionately burdened them and the general failure of recent agricultural and pandemic relief to reach them,” the response continued.
The Justice Department will almost surely seek an appeal.