Discrimination And Lack Of Capital Keeps Black Farmers In The 1% Minority

With less than 2% of Americans living on farms, careers in agriculture fail to be as lucrative as they once were. For Black farmers, however, the outlook is even bleaker as many struggle to keep their land amid discriminatory lending practices and being shut out of benefit programs.

The Center for Public Integrity reports that Black farmers are the only racial group to have decreased over the last century.

“Historical discrimination in this country has been about Black and white, not that others have got everything they deserve either,” said Lloyd Wright, a former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Civil Rights. “If you’re trying to address racial discrimination and you don’t address the Black problem, you’re really not addressing racial discrimination.”

Ninety-six percent of all farmers are white; only 1.4% are Black.

The USDA, whom many farmers turn to as a last line of defense when financial hardships arise, was accused of discrimination against Black farmers in 1999 after they “denied, delayed or otherwise frustrated the applications of those farmers for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs.”

The $2.2 billion settlement awarded cash, debt relief, and tax payments to some 35,000 farmers. However, it failed to address the systemic practices that led to the disbanding of the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights and allowed instances of discrimination to continue.

“The culture didn’t change. The employees didn’t change,” said Sylvia Stewart, research communications director and senior research associate at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“When farmers went in to apply for their loans, they still saw the same people who threw their applications in the trash. You still have that stagnant culture that continues to hang around.”

Then there’s the issue of the land itself, the outlet reports. “Land is the key to all of it,” said Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project. “If there’s anything they’re [USDA] going to do to help the farmer, it’s not going to help them to the magnitude of those that have all the land.”

In 1997, 94% of all farmland was white-owned, according to The Center for Public Integrity. Farm size is yet another way Black farmers often find themselves the target of discriminatory practices.

Due to maintenance and labor costs, Black farmers often face the difficult decision to sell part of their land to keep themselves afloat. An ability to retain more land could cause a significant change in circumstances for Black farmers and workers.

“By bringing Black farmers to parity on per-farm revenue and profit, there is $5 billion in economic value that can be created,” according to a 2021 report by McKinsey & Company. “Increasing business participation for Black farmers could create ladders of opportunity for 66,000 Black workers employed in the agriculture sector and beyond.”

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