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Skin colour stirs controversy – but it’s white

You don’t have to know much about U.S. history to understand that minority farmers have not been treated well. 

It’s a particularly topical matter this week, with the spotlight on equality and justice, on the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Efforts to right wrongs have been accelerated.

And surely that was President Joe Biden’s thinking, when he led the drive for a $4-billion debt forgiveness plan through the United States Department of Agriculture,for what have come to be called “socially disadvantaged” (a.k.a. minority) farmers, as part of the bigger American Rescue Plan Act.

The plan was meant to be a stimulus initiative. It singled out minority farmers – Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander – because it believed not only had history treated them poorly, but so had the pandemic.

The USDA says that for much of its history, socially disadvantaged producers have faced discrimination – “sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies” – that have prevented them from achieving as much as their counterparts who do not face such documented acts of discrimination.

Since 1999, there have also been two lawsuits settled between Black farmers and the USDA accusing the department of discrimination.

“On top of the pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy, socially disadvantaged communities are also dealing with a disproportionate share of COVID infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt,” says the USDA. “The American Rescue Plan Act seeks to address the cumulative effects of discrimination among socially disadvantaged [farmers] with a program of debt relief and long-term racial equity work.”

Sounds reasonable, right?

And it’s not like trial balloons haven’t been floated out there. In 2020, John Deere, the National Black Growers Council and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund announced they were creating a collation called Legislation, Education, Advocacy and Production systems (LEAP). It was focused on the work needed to improve the lives and livelihoods of Black farmers, with a particular emphasis on the preservation of Black-owned farmland in rural communities throughout the United States. This is another huge issue in agriculture, but LEAP didn’t appear to create animosity.   

The atmosphere changed late last month, though, when another coalition came forward – this one involving white farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio – who are suing the Biden administration because they say their skin colour is preventing them from taking part in the $4-billion loan forgiveness program. They’re not minority farmers so their loans stay in place.

“Because (the) 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,” the suit contends. The USDA says it will go ahead anyway and offer loan forgiveness to the socially disadvantaged farmers.

So, what now? Open up the loan forgiveness program to others who are not socially disadvantaged?

I suppose the matter could be resolved by setting a debt threshold for any farmer who is struggling, and look at support purely from an economic perspective.

But that ignores one of its core reasons for existing. And with sky high farm incomes in the US through the latter part of the Trump era, untangling the reasons for debt could be very complicated. 

Expect more such conflict as America keeps searching for ways to heal.

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