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Editorial: Fairness for Black farmers?
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Editorial: Fairness for Black farmers?

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Farmer John Boyd Jr.

Farmer John Boyd Jr., takes a break from bailing hay at his farm in Boydton, Va., Thursday, May 27, 2021. Boyd says, unlike their white counterparts, Black farmers who fell behind on a payment would see their loans immediately accelerated, no negotiations.

Family farmers across the nation are under pressure — ranging from droughts, floods and wildfires to the financial threat posed by factory farms operating on economies of scale but often without soul or appreciation of their, and the nation’s, natural resources.

But Black farmers are under extra pressure: They’ve faced the added burden of racism, which has translated into fiscal unfairness as well as moral injustice.

Surely America can isolate this one aspect of racism and deal with it.

Well, apparently not.

By 1910, Blacks ran 14% of the country’s farms, The Associated Press reports.

That achievement was reached by Americans whose families were scarcely two generations out of slavery, and it parallels similar attainments in business, education and the arts.

Today, Blacks make up only about 1% of U.S. farmers, says AP.

That decline is linked in large part to unfair treatment and race-based policies that imposed extra hardships on Blacks. Jim Crow laws and policies were deliberately designed to suppress achievement: Whites saw Blacks succeeding and wanted to put a stop to it.

But even that is viewed as irrelevant by many people, for whom events as recent as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are “ancient history.”

Then how about more recent history?

The AP investigation found clear evidence of discrimination against Black farmers from the 1980s forward — and many Blacks would say it hasn’t ended yet.

Among the farmers whose stories are told to help humanize the report is Virginia’s John Wesley Boyd Jr.

Boyd says he faced racism from the day he walked into a U.S. Department of Agriculture office when he bought his first farm in the early 1980s, assuming an existing USDA loan.

He said Black farmers could get appointments with the local lending officer only one day a week, a practice that became known as “Black Wednesday.” He said one officer tore up his application in front of him; another “accidentally” spit tobacco juice on him.

From federal records, AP confirmed a pattern of discrimination. Boyd’s requests for an operating loan sat unprocessed in the local office for years, despite orders from the state director. On another occasion, his account was wrongly flagged as delinquent when it should have been restructured; that error only worsened Boyd’s financial problems.

In 1996, the agency foreclosed on part of his property, executing the foreclosure in just 30 days. It then moved to foreclose on his remaining 110 acres.

Boyd joined other Black farmers on a march on Washington. Shortly thereafter, the secretary of agriculture declared a moratorium on farm foreclosures.

Recently, the federal government decided to try to remediate some of the wrongs done to Black farmers by providing billions of dollars to forgive loans — rather as Washington did with student loans.

But lawsuits in several states have put the program on pause, as white farmers argue that forgiving loans for farmers of color amounts to reverse discrimination.

Perhaps that might be true — if the problem could be reduced to one moment in time, the immediate present; and if all other factors were equal.

But they are not equal.

And what other “moment in time” would one choose as the appropriate set-point for measuring justice vs. discrimination? Having pinpointed this elusive moment, how would government identify those who benefited from unfair policies vs. those who suffered? Having identified these people, how would government recompense them based on their individual circumstances?

Such a fine parsing of detail is a practical impossibility.

A loan forgiveness program might not help those farmers who already have wrongly lost their property — but it could right some current wrongs.

If anyone has a better idea, let’s hear it.

— The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress

— The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress

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