Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Farmers of Color Outraged at Broken Promise to Help Debt Relief for the Community

A class-action lawsuit says the federal government has illegally broken a promise to pay off the debts of a group of Black farmers. The funding was dropped after a group of white farmers filed legal challenges arguing their exclusion violated their constitutional rights. The neglected farmers hope the officials will keep their promise and restore funding, but the lawsuit has remained since October.

John Boyd Jr., President of the National Black Farmers Association and one of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the new programs don’t match the USDA’s earlier offer to pay off 120% of the debts of socially disadvantaged farmers. According to the lawsuit, this definition applies to more than 6,500 farmers who have suffered racial prejudice and have federal loan obligations. The lawsuit says this includes Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Latino Americans.

“My dad always said, if you give somebody your word then you should own up to it,” Boyd said. “They gave us their word. We signed a contract and sent it back in and then they repealed the whole measure. I see it as a broken promise.”

The USDA has a long history of refusing to process loans from farmers of color and foreclosing more quickly than usual when such farmers run into problems. In 1910, Black farmers owned more than 16 million acres of land, but today, they have less than 4.7 million acres. When Boyd was 18 years old, walking into the USDA office to ask for a loan for his first farm in the early 1980s, he felt it was like a return to the Jim Crow era.

The lawsuit filed by Ben Crump, a Florida-based civil rights attorney, stems from congressional approval of $5 billion in debt relief for thousands of farmers of color. White farmers in several states then filed lawsuits arguing that the law violated their rights, which prompted judges to halt the program in June 2021.

Congress amended the law and offered financial help to some farmers because the likelihood of a lengthy trial would delay payments to the farmers. The new law allocated $3.1 billion to help farmers struggling with USDA loans and $2.2 billion to pay farmers whom the agency discriminated against.

Boyd said the federal government sent letters to minority farmers asking them to sign up for the payments, and it should have moved faster to provide the financial help. By changing the rules, the government violated a contract. “We see it as a whole lot of empty promises and broken promises,” Boyd said.

The guarantee of future debt relief caused some farmers to invest in their farms, only to be left in worse financial condition after the law changed and payments were delayed. The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and Boyd said he hopes it will pressure the government to act.

U.S.  News