Renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump, informally known as “Black America’s Attorney General,” announced Wednesday a class-action suit against the U.S. government on behalf of the National Black Farmers Association.
The lawsuit comes amid findings that Black farmers lost about $326 billion of land in America because of discrimination during the 20th century.
During the announcement of the suit on the National Mall in Washington, Crump and the farmers claimed the federal government breached its contract with socially disadvantaged farmers under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Farmers contend that the law included provisions to pay off USDA loans held by 15,000 African Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics and Latinos in the farming industry.
In August, Congress repealed section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which provided funding and authorization for the federal government to pay up to 120% of direct and guaranteed loan outstanding balances as of Jan. 1, 2021, for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, breaking the government’s promise and leaving farmers in foreclosure.
Black farmers said they relied on the federal government to keep its promise to fund $5 billion to the farmers when it passed the American Rescue Plan Act.
“Black and other farmers of color did exactly what the government asked them to do — they maintained or expanded their operations to strengthen America’s food supply during the COVID-19 crisis,” Crump said. “They believed the U.S. government’s promises. They took Congress and the [Biden] administration at their word, expecting that the government would pay off their debt, as the USDA promised in writing.
“Instead, it was 40 acres and a mule all over again, 150 years later — broken promises that doomed generations of Black farmers to become sharecroppers and robbed Black families of billions in intergenerational wealth,” he said.
With Crump at the helm, Black farmers across the country said they’re prepared to fight for the money promised.
“I’m very disappointed in this legislative action,” said John Wesley Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association, a nonprofit representing African American farmers and their families. “I’m prepared to fight for debt relief for Black, Native American, and other farmers of color all the way to the Supreme Court. I’m not going to stop fighting this.”
A 2019 report highlighted how many federal agencies have systemically discriminated against Black farmers, including the USDA.
“If you are Black and you’re born south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and you tried to farm, you’ve been discriminated against,” Lloyd Wright, director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and a Black Virginia farmer, said in the report.
The report noted that the debts Black farmers consequently accrued “cost them millions of acres, which white buyers then snapped up.”
In 1920, Black farmers peaked at nearly 1 million, constituting 14% of all farmers. But between 1910 and 1997, they lost 90% of their property. By contrast, white farmers lost only 2% in the same period.
As of 2017, there were just 35,470 Black-owned farms, representing 1.7% of all farms.
Black farmers lost some 16 million acres, Conservatively estimated to be worth between $250 billion and $350 billion in current dollars.
Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and representative of the Justice for Black Farmers Group, said USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack had done nothing to help Black farmers.
“The amount of wealth loss could be in the trillions of dollars,” Lucas said. “We’ve had administration after administration, president after president, and Congress after Congress does nothing. Secretary Vilsack was a disaster even when he worked under President Obama, who wasn’t good to us.”
In a letter to the agriculture secretary, Lucas expressed his disappointment.
“We have watched with disbelief and discouragement as a sequence of events played out in a self-fulfilling prophesy: a Vilsack agriculture transition team member declared that what we wanted, debt relief for Black farmers, was unconstitutional,” Lucas wrote. “We contend that there was an unnecessary length of time spent on Senator Warnock’s two bills, voted into the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and the decision by a Florida judge to issue a temporary restraining order against you, which stopped relief for Black farmers.”
“We contend that you slow-walked the processing of these claims with a process that went beyond 100 days,” Lucas continued. “With the stroke of your pen, we are fully aware that you could have removed the debt these farmers have suffered because of USDA’s long history of discrimination, not a process but debt relief.
“Instead, we have white privilege that continues to be a part of the USDA landscape at the pain and suffering of Black farmers and others.
“[Former President Donald] Trump paid out $16 billion in allotments to white farmers quickly, and Black farmers received only a small fraction of those funds,” he wrote. “Why for them and not us?”