A new decision from a federal judge could jeopardize historic debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers of color. Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin’s Eastern District issued a temporary restraining Thursday, preventing the Biden administration from releasing long-awaited funds.
Griesbach found in favor of the plaintiffs stating the challenge had a likelihood of succeeding on the claim’s merits. A conservative law firm, known for exploiting technicalities to the detriment of historically disenfranchised communities, represents the white farmers.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the claim that the program meant to uplift Black and other farmers of color violates the white farmers’ right to equal protection under the law. Basically, white farmers got mad they weren’t eligible for the $4 billion debt cancellation program and sued in April alleging reverse racism.
Challenges to affirmative action policies often use similar logic. From their viewpoint, it doesn’t matter that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an established history of denying Black and other farmers of color the same equal protection for generations.
The narrow scope of review in Griesbach’s decision shows the limitations of existing discrimination laws. Griesbach claimed the USDA used the “wrong benchmarks,” according to NBC News. He also stated the agency failed to document evidence of intentional discrimination in administering programs to warrant the current program.
“Aside from a summary of statistical disparities, defendants have no evidence of intentional discrimination by the USDA in the implementation of the recent agriculture subsidies and pandemic relief efforts,” wrote Griesbach. He further said the loan-forgiveness program failed to consider the financial circumstances of the applicant.
But it is well documented that white farmers have overwhelmingly benefited from USDA programs and financial help. And despite winning a discrimination class action against the USDA, Black farmers have never been made whole.
The historic farm aid provides an opportunity for the USDA to finally do right by Black farmers, who the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted. And yet, white farmers received almost all the $26 billion of pandemic aid under former President Donald Trump. Only 0.1% of aid went to Black farmers, further compounding decades of underfunding.
Griesbach’s standard relies on an outdated way of thinking about racism. But it also challenges government attorneys to point to the well-documented history of discrimination at the USDA, including studies and determinations of the agency’s failure at ensuring equal protection for Black and other farmers of color.
Scheduled to make payments to eligible farmers this week, the aid was passed as a part of the fourth round of COVID-19 pandemic assistance. Over 600 agricultural organizations and food producers supported the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, introduced by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock.
As with many areas of American life, the pandemic exposed long-standing inequities. “This once-in-a-century pandemic, and the economic downturn that followed, has revealed and exacerbated long-standing disparities in our government that have left certain communities behind, particularly Black farmers and farmers of color,” said Warnock in a statement in March. “This legislation is a major step toward righting some of these injustices and leveling the playing field for farmers and farming families of color to help them not only recover from the devastation of these crises but give them the tools and assistance to thrive that they’ve long been denied.”