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Earlier this year Black farmers felt a form of reparations was possible as the federal government rolled out a $4 billion loan forgiveness program included in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, titled the American Rescue Plan Act that passed Congress in March.

But weeks later, five white farmers sued the USDA, claiming the loan forgiveness program discriminated against them because they were white. With the backing of Republican players in Congress and conservative voices with large public platforms, the case became a microcosm of the reparations movement and how those in opposition often claim false equivalences, contributing to the systemic racism that Black people routinely face.

In June a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs by deeming the payouts unconstitutional, temporarily preventing the badly needed funds from being distributed to Black and minority farming communities. Under the USDA’s program, Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic and Latino farmers qualified for payments of up to 120 percent of their outstanding USDA loans, meaning that an estimated 16,000 farmers from minority communities qualified for the aid.

Now they are unsure of next steps.

Black farmers and their advocates saw the move as a way to begin reversing over a century of oppression in the farming industry, where Black farmers have routinely been discriminated against under the thumb of private and federal authority, most recently argued in a series of discrimination lawsuits in the 90s, known as the Pigford cases.

“It was a long time coming, and then lo and behold the wool is pulled from under you again,” Tammy Harris, a Georiga business owner, and farming advocate said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So there is disappointment.”

Black farmers especially hoped the American Rescue Plan would provide an aggressive means to reverse the inequities they experienced during the rollout of the CARES Act of 2020, where a majority of the welfare was distributed to white farmers, and the atrocities delivered in 2017 when Black farmers received $1 in federal subsidies for every $162 received by white farmers. And under the Trump administration, Black farmers received less than two percent of direct loans.

In response to the temporary stop on payments, the USDA issued a response that signaled that there may be a large fight ahead for Black farmers to receive their just due.

“USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” a department spokesperson said in an email obtained by POLITICO. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”


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