Black farmers gain wide support in court battle over $5 billion COVID relief money

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Farmers receive support from Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and other legal advocates before June 24 court deadline

Black farmers who were blocked from receiving $5 billion in COVID relief money in 2021 due to a Texas lawsuit filed by suspected white supremacists will have a chance to fight back, thanks to a massive effort on the part of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. 

Represented by attorneys from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, members of the Georgia-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund will have their day in court on behalf of the Black farmers and ranchers who were shut out of the COVID relief program. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives will join Department of Agriculture lawyers on the defense side of the Texas lawsuit – Miller vs. Vilsack – although initially the USDA tried to block the Federation from the defense team.

The Federation and its lawyers have a June 24 deadline to gather evidence from farmers and ranchers of color who have experienced race-based discrimination by USDA and its agencies since 2010. The lawyers will also seek statements from bureaucrats in charge of the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Rural Development Agency.

The Federation is collecting statements from farmers or ranchers who have witnessed or have personal knowledge of race-based discrimination by the USDA. 

Over 25 non-profits, the farming community, and climate justice groups from Mississippi, with a comparable number of organizations from other states, are actively supporting the Federation as it collects evidence for its legal intervention. The scale of the defense being lined up on behalf of the suffering farmers of color will be massive, a Federation spokesperson said. 

Andrew Whitehurst, water director for the organization Healthy Gulf, one of the 25 Mississippi advocacy groups in support of the Federation’s legal action, is policy group co-chair of the Gulf South for a Green New Deal (GS4GND) group, a regional climate justice movement.

“The Federation is in charge of the legal strategy,” Whitehurst said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “We’re just trying to funnel more individual work stories and declarations to them to bolster the intervention.” 

PIGFORD LAWSUITS

In January 2021, thousands of Black and other non-white farmers thought they were about to get the debt relief in President Biden’s COVID relief plan that they had not been able to obtain from the 1999 and 2010 class action lawsuits known as Pigford I and II. More than 35,000 Black and disadvantaged farmers received payments under the Pigford settlements.

The Department of Agriculture throughout its history had either refused or restricted loans and other services to Black farmers that were readily available to white farmers, it was revealed. The USDA’s own researchers reported that such racial bias persisted through the years. The USDA’s civil rights’ office was even dismantled under Ronald Reagan’s administration.

A 1994 report commissioned by the USDA, analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, found that “minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans.”

In the same report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that “the largest percent of USDA loans went to corporations and white male farmers. Loans to Black male farmers were, on average, 25 percent less than those given to white males. And 97 percent of disaster payments went to white farmers – while less than 1 percent went to Black farmers.”

RESCUE PLAN

A total of $5 billion was included in the American Rescue Act Plan as part of President Biden’s $1.3 trillion COVID relief fund. It was reported that $4 billion was to cover 120 percent of the balances on loans owed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture byany “socially disadvantaged producer.” The other $1 billion was included for “outreach, education, grants, and investments designed to change the culture within the USDA.” The relief payments, when they are released, are to be awarded to farmers and producers identified as Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, or Pacific Islander.

Just as things began falling into place for the designated farmers, a typical “good ol’ boy” from Texas and some of his friends, still hanging around from the Trump administration, filed lawsuits to block the payments to the socially disadvantaged farmers. The lawsuit Miller vs. Vilsack in essence charges Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA with race discrimination in the department’s attempt to bring equity to Black and other farmers of color who lost over 90 percent of their land and other family assets because of racist practices over the last 100 years. 

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller claimed that he was filing the lawsuit as a private citizen and a farmer, citing Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights provisions of the Constitution in defense of the rights of white Texans. 

The wily Miller is thoroughly dependent on the support of America Legal First, a suspect group that was brought together by former President Trump’s senior policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller, along with Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker.

The Miller support team also played a central role in similar lawsuits filed in Wisconsin and Florida.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the main function of America Legal First is to work in tandem with ”state attorneys and Republican lawyers around the country to file and assist with conservative lawsuits against Biden policies.” 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a vigilant critic of racist practices and institutions especially in the South, accused Trump adviser Stephen Miller of having an “affinity for white nationalism.”

“White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller regularly promoted white nationalist literature and racist propaganda to editors at Breitbart News as he shaped the far-right website’s coverage of issues related to immigrants,” SPLC reported in its Nov. 12, 2019 newsletter.

Healthy Gulf’s Whitehurst, who lives in Madison, is critical of the obstructions and delays that will result from the various “suffering whites” lawsuits like Miller vs. Vilsack.

“The cruelty of it is that the tactics will delay the money more and more as these claims work their way through the federal district system and then through the appeals system,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied. And debt relief delayed is debt relief denied.  It comes down to the local farmers losing their land and not being able to stay in business.”

LAWSUIT ACTION

Farmers and other stakeholders with pertinent information may contribute their stories as a part of the defense in the Texas lawsuit. Dania Davy, director of Land Retention and Advocacy for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, is the contact for farmers or ranchers and their allies with stories about race-based discrimination in USDA’s programs: email to daniadavy@federation.coop; Federation of Southern Cooperatives, 2769 Church St., East Point, GA 30344; phone: (404) 765-0991.

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Black farmers gain wide support in court battle over $5 billion COVID relief money

By Earnest McBride
June 18, 2022