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Congress gave minority farmers much-needed relief. White farmers say it’s illegal.

A lawsuit backed by conservatives claims a Biden administration Covid-19 relief program discriminates against white people.

Part of a Covid-19 economic stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year created a $5 billion debt relief program specifically to assist nonwhite farmers who have been “socially disadvantaged” through discriminatory policy.

That program — outlined in Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — is being challenged in court in multiple states by white farmers, who claim the program discriminates against them. One of the groups suing on behalf of white farmers is led in part by former President Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller. In June, a federal judge put the program on hold as the case moves through court.

One group of Black farmers — the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund — filed a motion last week to intervene and have their voices heard in that case.

I spoke with Dania Davy, the federation’s director of land retention and advocacy, and Cornelius Blanding, the federation’s executive director, earlier this week about the fight ahead and what’s at stake for Black farmers.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ReidOut Blog: How did the lawsuits come about?

Dania Davy: Unfortunately, there were some folks who decided to exploit the plight of white farmers who may not fully understand the history of race-based discrimination that farmers and ranchers of color have endured. And they see the term "socially disadvantaged" to apply possibly also to them, as folks who might be in dire straits financially.

What do Black farmers want out of the lawsuit?

Cornelius Blanding: Equity is needed here. Not that you can’t [provide relief] for white farmers and other farmers — because we can, and we should. But we can never leave out Black farmers. And as a matter of fact, we have to prioritize them because of the historical discrimination and because of the ugly past that we’ve had as a country, as a nation and as a world. 

What could happen if the debt relief is rescinded?

Davy: Our members that received those letters from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] telling them they were eligible for debt relief — they planned their entire farming season off of this anticipated debt relief. And so now, we’re facing possible foreclosure, possible bankruptcy, possible challenges to even harvesting this season, because the debt relief was being delayed by the litigation. ...

So we were really put in a position where the best interests of our members were not being presented to the judge. There was nothing on the record to indicate the ongoing experiences of race-based discrimination that our members are encountering.

What role has farming played in Black civil rights?

Blanding: What Martin Luther King learned early was that he had to be connected to rural communities — those rural communities in Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia and throughout what is the epicenter of the civil rights movement. It was because farmers were not only part of the movement from the very beginning, but they also formed the basis in terms of putting up land, to sustain a movement to get folks out of jail and do all kinds of things. So when we start realizing the value, the power, the beauty in the land, we’ll start utilizing it at a different rate. And I think that scares many.

What has farming and land ownership meant to Black people historically?

Davy: I feel like I’m standing on very broad shoulders. I’m standing on a very rich history of Black folks who, because they had access to land, they were able to have a version of freedom that many others just don’t have. And so for me, I think it’s really important that African Americans truly get a chance to appreciate and celebrate the richness of the history.

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