Farm Racism: More Data Destroying the “Post-Racial” Myth

Colorlines has a story by Jessica Hoffmann that demolishes the “post-racial America” mythology. Systemic racism is central to the 21st United States, no matter how much the white apologists, moderates or far-right supremacists, rattle on about an end to racism. Look at extreme racial inequality and continuing racial discrimination in allocation of farm supports. The U.S. government spends many billions yearly subsidizing farming. According to a recent GAO report, these government “welfare” recipients are overwhelmingly white, including

three thousand multimillionaires who derive most of their income from activities other than farming. The U.S. government spends billions each year subsidizing farm operations.

Haggard Farm Sunset
Creative Commons License photo credit: Schlüsselbein2007

The small farmers, justifiably celebrated as providing us with food and prosperity over centuries, mostly get stiffed by the government support system:

Crop-subsidy programs systematically fail to support small farmers—and this disproportionately impacts farmers of color. . . . Black farmers receive only one-third to one-sixth of the benefits that other farmers receive, according to the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization…. The Southern Rural Development Initiative found that less than 1 percent of agriculture subsidy payments between 2001 and 2003 went to Blacks, Native Americans and Asian Americans. [Note: Latinos are often counted as white in government accounting, so often not in these data.] …. Even in counties where people of color are the majority, researchers estimate that at a minimum, almost 95 percent of agriculture subsidies “are going to farms with white operators.”

How’s that for extreme racial inequality in the 21st century? Adding in Latino farmers still probably means that somewhere near 98 percent of government subsides go to white farmers. And even in counties with a majority of farmers who are people of color, the latter get a very small portion of the supports. This certainly looks like another white welfare system to me.

One reason for this is that whites control almost all the bigger farms:

Less than one percent of subsidies go Federal crop subsidies go to commodity crops like corn, cotton and rice, which require large farms, and most large farms in the U.S. are white-owned. …. USDA spokespeople maintain that disparities in subsidies payments are not a matter of race, but simply of “large farms and small farms.”

They, like many other whites, cannot see structures and systems of oppression. However, fairies did not generate a system where whites control most of the farm land. This took centuries of extreme racial segregation and discrimination:

Yet a history of systemic racism in the U.S. (including at the USDA) means that farmers of color disproportionately own small farms where they raise livestock or grow fruits and vegetables—crops that are ineligible for USDA crop subsidies. USDA crop payments are based not only on type of crop but also on historical acreage and per-acre yields. Given the long and documented history of discriminatory lending practices and foreclosures against farmers of color by the USDA, Black farmers today have fewer land holdings to make them eligible for the subsidies.

Significantly, there have been major efforts by farmers of color (not whites) in recent years to end the discrimination against farmers of color, and to get compensation for the large-scale past discrimination. For example, to stop the discrimination against African American farmers in government farm lending and benefit programs, thousands of black farmers brought a class action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997. Federal government denial of legal redress to the aggrieved black farmers who were protesting discrimination in Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs led to this lawsuit. Black farmers gave evidence about widespread discrimination in many aspects of the process of getting FSA loans and benefits. This discrimination took the form of FSA officials misinforming black farmers that there were no loan applications or benefits available in particular local FSA offices. (For references, see chapter six in White Racism: The Basics)

Eventually, the black farmers had their day in court and won a major settlement, approved by a U.S. District Court. The black farmers involved could choose among three options: reject the settlement, get $50,000 if they could show injury, or petition for more in binding arbitration. However, for many the compensation offered was quite insufficient as a response to years of racial discrimination–for many had lost homes, equipment, and land, some of which had been in the family for generations.

Today, the situation of African American farmers (and other farmers of color) is particularly bleak. Over the last 80 years, denial of fair access to capital (bank loans) and many product markets, often because of racial discrimination, has gradually reduced the number of black farmers by more than 97 percent—from 890,000 in 1910 to fewer than 29,145 in 2002. (For details, see chapter 2 here)

According to Hoffman, one sad part of this is that now small farming is coming back in as an ideal that allows for more sustainable agriculture:

Although farmers of color have much to offer in a world that increasingly sees small-scale, biodiverse farming as essential to food security and environmental sustainability, they are locked out of major USDA funding streams.

And recent farm bills in Congress keep this extreme “post- post-racial” inequality going along much like is has for centuries.


  1. philstudent

    After seeing these statistics, I would want to see what the racial breakdown of small farm owners is. If the majority is black, then I think the article is right in pointing out the probable racism. However, if the majority is white, then this could be more of a socio-economic issue. (Is “classism” the right word to use here?)
    The article also states that “Black farmers receive only one-third to one-sixth of the benefits that other farmers receive,” but I wonder if that includes both large and small farm owners.
    I do admit, though, that sometimes trying to parse classism and racism feels like a chicken-and-egg quandary.

  2. Joe Author

    philstudent, those are interesting q’s. You are right there is a class dimension to this, but the small/larger farmer class difference is underlain by the 400 years of racial oppression that black farmers have had to face. Until the 1970s they faced enslavement (246 years or so) and extreme racial apartheid (nearly another 100 years), both of which kept them from building up capital and land. More recently, they have faced large scale discrimination by white farmers and esp. gov. officials at the local, state, and federal levels. Race usually trumps, or creates, “class” in this case.

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