John Boyd, Jr. will stop at nothing to draw attention to the endless racism faced by Black farmers in the United States, even to riding his mule “Struggle” to protests in Washington, D.C. Boyd is a fourth-generation farmer, civil rights advocate and founder of the National Black Farmers Association. NBFA’s many protests and long-standing legal complaints show that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has for over a century steadily denied Black farmers access to government loans and subsidies.
A struggle rooted in racism. In January 1865, President Lincoln’s administration allotted “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves. By June, 400,000 acres confiscated from Confederate landowners were distributed to 40,000 free Black farmers. After Lincoln’s assassination, that land reparation was almost immediately withdrawn and returned to the plantation slave owners.
In 1866, after the Civil War ended, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act that gave Black farmers the chance to buy land in some southern states. Over time, they came to own 14% of U.S. farms. But the deadly development of Jim Crow laws rapidly undercut the political and social rights of all Black Americans. They have weathered over 150 years of racist abuse from the banks, swindling lawyers and the murderous Ku Klux Klan — be it foreclosure, displacement, land theft, brutal beatings and lynchings.
The racist treatment of Black farmers has the very same root as U.S. slavery itself, which is the exploitation and oppression of African Americans endemic to capitalism and capitalist industrialization in the United States.
The Department of Agriculture openly admits its long-time practice of withholding loans and grant funds from Black and other minority farmers. By 2002, USDA’s reports showed that Black Americans owned less than 1% of farm land in the U.S., while whites owned 96%. Black and Native American land wealth had been methodically stolen, ending up in the hands of giant agribusiness and Wall Street. Discriminatory lending practices had cost Black farmers some 12 million acres.
In the landmark 1999 and 2010 Pigford v. Glickman lawsuits, a federal court ruled that the USDA had systematically continued to deny assistance to Black farmers. As a result, payments were distributed to some Black farmers. Even then, the amount each plaintiff received was inadequate.
According to the Environmental Working Group, farm subsidies under Trump “soared and the rich got richer.” Of the $20 billion, 60% of the subsidies went to the richest farmers. Small farmers received only 2%, as they struggled with low crop prices and the economic crises.
Relief gained and denied. Black farmers, men and women, remain burdened by debt and strain to stay afloat amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2021, as part of President Biden’s Covid Relief efforts, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which included a $5 billion package to pay off loans and provide aid to impoverished farmers. This Act specifically named Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Hispanic farmers.
White supremacist law firm America First Legal, founded by Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller, quickly sued ARPA in a U.S. District Court in Texas. This immediately halted any payments and debt relief to farmers of color. Several more suits have been filed in federal courts claiming unconstitutional discrimination against white farmers. In Florida, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard, a Trump appointee, agreed. The farmers’ attorney responded, “To recognize and correct racism is not racist or unconstitutional.” The Biden Administration is not fighting these racist lawsuits in court.
Some state legislatures have already blocked billions in debt relief and aid payments. These lawsuits and legislative bills have their roots in the far-right movement that is currently targeting voting, reproductive, queer, trans and immigrant rights across the country.
Meanwhile, the USDA has sent notices of “payment due” on loans that should have been forgiven by ARPA. USDA bureaucrats assure angry farmers that this is just normal procedure, and it will suspend any “adverse actions.”
Frustrated, the growers are bringing their issues directly to the consumers. John Boyd Jr. chastised PepsiCo for not honoring a commitment to increase contracts with Black farmers and called for a boycott of PepsiCo products.
There are also ongoing efforts to educate the public on what is needed to level the playing field. Organizing alongside Native American farmers, NBFA continues to expose the USDA and work in solidarity with other small growers, climate-positive collectives and city dwellers.
Clearly, racism and capitalism have to be uprooted, shredded and composted in order to halt this long history of injustice.
Readers can support and donate at NationalBlackFarmersAssociation.org.
Watch socialism.com for the Freedom Socialist Party’s soon-to-be-published pamphlet “A Revolutionary Call for Black Reparations.”