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Let’s honor the legacy of Juneteenth by delivering on our promise of debt relief to Black farmers

Photo by Grace Murray Stephenson of celebrations in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900

Yesterday, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Celebrating the perceived freedom of Black people as a nation is performative without actions that require accountability to the Black farming population. On the eve of Juneteenth, we are facing a moment to act in service to Black farmers in a meaningful way. We expect USDA to recognize Juneteenth as our Black elders did– as an opportunity to reflect on our progress towards Black liberation and what it will take to make emancipation a reality for Black farmers in the U.S. 

The long-awaited historic investment in socially disadvantaged farmers (USDA’s terminology for “a farmer or rancher who has been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices”) in the American Rescue Plan (H.R. 1319) is now on hold as a federal judge in Wisconsin has issued a temporary restraining order in a case brought by 12 white farmers. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the lawsuit on behalf of the group of farmers, alleging that the loan forgiveness program set to award $4 billion to socially disadvantaged farmers is unconstitutional and would cause the plaintiffs “irreparable harm.” 

The judge issued a restraining order blocking implementation of the debt relief, concluding that the white farmers are likely to succeed in their claim that the use of racial classifications in awarding of funds violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause. So what does this mean? It means no relief checks can be issued by USDA as the federal court considers granting a preliminary injunction. If granted, a preliminary injunction could mean the court moves to prevent any relief going out nationwide while the case is pending. However, USDA is still asking potential beneficiaries to update their AD-2047 form in their local FSA office and return their signed letters for eligibility back to their FSA office.

There are many striking similarities in the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation and the American Rescue Plan. The Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, was prevented from reaching Texas–the last remaining Confederate state where the enslavement of Black people was still lawful–until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, the date which has come to be celebrated as Juneteenth. Further, the Emancipation Proclamation only granted freedom to enslaved people in Confederate states, not in bordering states loyal to the Union. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865 that enslaving Black people was abolished in the U.S. as a whole. The slow implementation of race-based policy that supports debt relief for Black farmers today is reminiscent of the emancipation delays of the Civil War era. Recognizing this perpetual racism in our policymaking allows us to identify the work still ahead. 

This moment also highlights just how important race-based federal programming is for collective freedom and liberation. Anti-Black racism has a long history in the agriculture industry, from USDA distorting data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers to the depletion of the Black farming population at the hands of systemic racism since 1920. Black farmers make up 1.3% of the farming population, and the number of Black farmers is steadily decreasing as anti-Black discrimination continues to limit opportunity for Black agriculturalists. Meanwhile, the $23 billion previously dispersed through federal COVID-19 aid has almost exclusively gone to white farmers. Federal agricultural policy needs to correct its programs and implementation to better support BIPOC farmers, particularly Black farmers.

We applaud USDA’s defense of the intended implementation of the American Rescue Plan, which aims to set aside funds to assist socially disadvantaged farmers with accessing USDA debt relief. We support the work of HEAL, and the Rural Coalition and the Intertribal Agriculture Council detailed in their joint press release issued Friday. We invite you to sign on to our collective rejection of the restraining order that prevents USDA from issuing relief checks immediately. And we also encourage you to submit your comments to the Federal Register here. As individuals, we can also consider donating time or financial resources to mutual aid funds in support of collective liberation, such as this one from Sweet Freedom Farm.
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