Biden administration defends record amid class action lawsuit from Black farmers

The lawsuit, filed by civil rights attorney Ben Crump, accuses the U.S. government of breaching its “contractual rights” with “socially disadvantaged” Black farmers who had been historically discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture.

The White House on Wednesday touted its efforts to provide relief for Black American farmers on the same day that the federal government was hit with a class action lawsuit by said farmers, who say the government broke its promise to keep their farms afloat throughout and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben Crump Black Farmers
Attorney Ben Crump with Black farmers who are plaintiffs in a new lawsuit filed against the federal government. (Photo: Darryle A. Carter via Ben Crump Law)

The Biden administration reacted to the lawsuit with a statement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that does not explicitly mention the lawsuit that was announced on Wednesday and filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims on Oct. 7. However, the government sought to clarify its position after lawsuits filed by white farmers, who claimed they were discriminated against, led to court injunctions that froze the $5 billion intended to relieve Black and minority farmers. 

The funding was earmarked in the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021. It quickly drew outrage from Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called the policy “reparations,” while others claimed it was reverse discrimination.

A group of Black farmers, represented by famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, says the U.S. government breached its “contractual rights” when it repealed the provision in ARP that would’ve provided the federal funding for “socially disadvantaged” farmers, particularly Black farmers who had been historically discriminated against by USDA.

Crump compared the “breached contract” to the 40 acres and a mule that was promised to enslaved African Americans during the American Civil War – a pledge of land that never came to fruition. The civil rights attorney is calling for the exact amount of funding ($5 billion) initially included in ARP to be awarded to the plaintiffs.

He told theGrio the objective of the lawsuit is to “make the federal government live up to the promise that the Black farmers and the brown farmers relied on when they passed the American Rescue Plan.” 

“The powers that be, for whatever reason, started to scream reverse discrimination. And then the government broke their promise,” said Crump. “They did not stand up and fight for the Black farmers to get equal justice and equal opportunity after it was clear that so many times Black farmers and brown farmers, Asian farmers and native farmers have been discriminated against.”

Crump also noted that Black and minority farmers relied on the promise of debt relief by the federal government, so much so that they invested in new equipment and land. The plaintiffs say they are now in jeopardy of losing their farms and livelihood.

Leon W. Russell, chair of the National Board of Directors at NAACP, told theGrio that Crump’s lawsuit on behalf of Black and brown farmers is an “excellent strategy,” noting that Black farmers have been promised relief for decades. “Promises have not been kept,” he said. 

Black farmer
(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

While the administration says it is adamant about fighting for Black farmers, it defended its decision to repeal the ARP provision. In a statement, USDA said had they not, the legal battle “would likely have not been resolved for years.” 

The Biden-Harris administration noted that in the Inflation Reduction Act, Democratic senators provided $3.1 billion for “distressed borrowers” and an additional $2.2 billion to provide financial assistance for farmers who “have suffered discrimination by USDA farm loan programs.” However, the bill’s language no longer mentioned race as a specific criterion. 

In a previous statement at the time of the IRA’s passage on Capitol Hill, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who co-sponsored the new provisions, said “those farmers, particularly Black farmers, who have suffered USDA discrimination, this legislation sets in motion a process to right those wrongs.”

In the early 20th century, there were many Black farmers in the United States. In a previous interview with theGrio, Black farmers advocate and former USDA state director, Shirley Sherrod, estimated that there were “almost a million Black farmers somewhere around 1910 or so,” who she said, “owned about 15 million acres of farmland.”

Today, the number of Black farmers is said to be dismal, as many of them had to shut down their businesses due to a lack of capital. Additionally, many were denied loans from the Department of Agriculture because of alleged discrimination. A settlement was eventually reached during the Obama administration to the tune of $1.25 billion. 

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