The Covid relief package is providing a platform for a historic Senate newcomer to deliver for a long-struggling constituency: black farmers. Led by Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Senate Democrats are touting a $5 billion provision in the relief bill that will wipe out federal debts for farmers of color, and invest in reforms to help these farmers build generational wealth by keeping their family farms in the family.
On a call with reporters Wednesday, Warnock celebrated the inclusion of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act in the $1.9 trillion Covid package. Warnock said Democrats were acting to “ensure equity in our recovery efforts and address longstanding injustices that have left some communities behind for far too long.” The newly elected Warnock, who is the first black senator to serve from Georgia, underscored that this federal assistance “will not only help farmers of color, but will also lift up the economies of our rural communities working to recover from the economic turndown.”
Black farmers have long faced overt and systemic racism, not only from private lenders but from the federal government. (The class-action Pigford settlements between the USDA and black farmers covered pervasive Civil Rights violations from 1983 to 2010.) Owing to this discrimination, and other factors, many small, black-owned farms have not had clear deed and ownership structures that allow them to be passed down in tact, often creating fractional ownership that hampers operations or make the farms easy pickings for predatory lenders and/or for consolidation by corporate agribusiness.
Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is chair of the Senate agriculture committee, with oversight of this issue. She praised her new colleague for his leadership. “I want to thank Senator Warnock for coming in and and working with me to embrace this and get it over the line right away.” Democrats have often been shy about touting programs specifically targeted to communities of color, but Stabenow showed no such reticence, even framing the provision as “an important piece of reparations.”
Stabenow pointed to a long decline in black farm ownership from a high of 14 percent in the 1920s to just two percent of U.S. farms today. “When you look at one of the very first ways that there was racial discrimination after slavery was legally abolished, it was lack of support for black farmers,” she said, “people who were discriminated against in terms of land ownership.” She claimed the relief funding would “eliminate all of the USDA loans and related taxes and penalties for black farmers and other farmers of color,” as well as put $1 billion behind efforts championed by Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to facilitate generational transfer of wealth between black family-farm owners and their heirs. Stabenow insisted this was just one piece of Democratic efforts to address “longstanding areas of discrimination and racial disparity on land ownership and farmers, particularly in the South.”
In recent days, the massive Covid relief package experienced a significant setback, with the $15 minimum wage being struck from the bill by the Senate parliamentarian. Seeking to rally crestfallen liberals, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pointed to provisions like debt relief for black farmers to insist that the Covid relief package will be “the most progressive thing we have had in decades.”