As part of the nearly $2-trillion coronavirus relief package President Joe Biden signed in March, $4 billion was set aside to bankroll a loan forgiveness plan for “socially disadvantaged” farmers.
The stimulus program is designed to provide aid to Black and brown agriculturalists that have traditionally been disenfranchised.
But a conservative law firm has stepped in to block the debt relief for minority farm hands, filing a lawsuit against federal government officials, in a claim that the “race-based” loan forgiveness package discriminates against white farmers.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that specializes in petitioning the courts for policy initiatives steeped in the conservative national agenda. In September, WILL filed a series of lawsuits to stop mask mandates across Wisconsin. The state ranked third in the nation for new cases per capita at the time, according to Channel3000.
WILL filed last month’s federal lawsuit on behalf of five white farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and South Dakota, alleging the loan forgiveness initiative is unconstitutional and amounts to racial discrimination. The law group is petitioning for an injunction to prevent any racial classifications in which farmers qualify for the federal loans.
“Conditioning benefits from the federal government on the basis of race is unconstitutional,” the organization’s president Rick Esenberg said in a statement. “WILL is committed to ensuring that the current threats to the bedrock principle of equality under the law, something that many generations have worked tirelessly to achieve, are challenged and fought.”
The class-action suit was lodged on Thursday, April 29, in a U.S. District Court in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It lists U.S. Secretary of Argiculture Tom Vilsack and Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, as defendants.
The two Wisconsin plaintiffs own dairy farms while the three others raise beef cattle, corn, soybeans and other crops. Their farms range in size from 50 to 1,000 acres, according to the lawsuit. Adam Faust, one of the Wisconsin dairy farmers listed in the complaint, is a double-amputee, his attorneys indicate.
“There should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race,” Faust said. “The economic impact from COVID-19 didn’t hurt any race more than another as far as agriculture goes.”
The loan forgiveness program was a provision included in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. It was tapped as the “Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act” by the lawmakers who sponsored the program, which operates from funds funneled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The bill is designed to make some amends for “systemic racism” that was rampant in agriculture. Proponents say the USDA and other government agencies helped perpetuate discrimination against Black, Hispanic and other minority farmers for several decades. According to USDA data, there were 925,000 Black farmers in the U.S. in the 1920s, accounting for about 16 percent of the nation’s agriculture industry. But African Americans have lost over 12 million acres of farmland in the past 100 years, mostly since the 1950s. Millions of those lost acres have been ripped away from Black families due to discriminatory federal policies, as chronicled by The Atlantic.
A federal judge approved a $1 billion settlement — the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history — in 1999 after hundreds of Black farmers sued the Department of Agriculture, alleging racial discrimination over a 20-year period between 1981 and 1997. The USDA admitted to some discriminatory practices.
By 2017, less than 50,000 of the 3.4 million farmers across the country were Black, according to the USDA. Many of today’s Black farmers are saddled with debt. Biden’s multi-billion dollar relief package is meant to help those disadvantaged farmers grapple with the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The program will help indebted farmers pay off up to 120 percent of outstanding loans owed to the USDA and other federal agencies.
Farmers must be Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Alaskan natives, Asian American or Pacific Islander to qualify for the federal program. White farmers aren’t eligible. WILL attorneys claim that’s a violation of their plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, arguing “such broad goals do not override the constitutional ban on race discrimination,” in the lawsuit.
The Department of Agriculture, according to Associated Press, issued a statement indicating the agency is reviewing the white farmer’s lawsuit. However, USDA plans to continue the loan forgiveness program for disenfranchised minority farmers.