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A new federal program created by the Biden administration to reverse years of economic discrimination against American farmers of color has been halted.
A Wisconsin federal judge on Thursday ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop forgiving breed-based loans as part of a new effort included in the U.S. relief plan.
The move was a blow to the nascent USDA program, but a victory for the conservative law firm behind the case and the 12 white farmers it represents, who say they are ineligible for the case. ‘debt cancellation because of their race.
“The government has created a program that distributes government benefits based solely on the breed of the farmer, and the Supreme Court’s case law is very clear, the government cannot do this without a very good reason,” Luke Berg , Deputy Legal Advisor of the Wisconsin Institute. for Law & Liberty, NPR said.
“The government has not identified such a reason. It has only mentioned societal discrimination, systemic discrimination, but the courts are clear that this is not enough,” he added.
The news was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
U.S. District Court Judge William C. Griesbach for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, who issued the temporary restraining order, said in his opinion that Congress cannot create a program that discriminates on the basis of race and that the USDA provided no evidence that it was attempting to correct a specific act of discrimination.
“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers on the basis of race or national origin is to order it to stop: not to order it to intentionally discriminate against others. on the basis of their race and national origin. “, wrote Griesbach.
A USDA spokesperson said the department would be ready to resume the loan cancellation program if and when the prohibition order was lifted. “We respectfully disagree with this temporary ordinance and the USDA will continue to vigorously defend our ability to carry out this law of Congress and provide debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” the spokesperson said.
A story of discrimination against farmers of color
The USDA has a history of discriminating against black farmers and other farmers of color for decades – a story that senior department officials now recognize.
“The point is that there was discrimination in the 1970s and 1980s and in the 1990s at USDA which made it very difficult for socially disadvantaged producers to fully and completely access USDA programs,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told NPR in March.
“The result, of course, is that over time they fall further and further behind,” he added.
The racial divide between farmers who receive federal aid and those who do not was evident as recently as last year, according to Vilsack.
The USDA distributed tens of billions of dollars to farmers affected by COVID-19 in 2020, but only 1% of the aid went to what the department calls “socially disadvantaged producers” – a catch-all term for farmers of color.
The government’s current pattern of discrimination against farmers of color has sparked skepticism among some producers and ranchers, who say they are still unsure whether the USDA will keep its most recent promise.
“If you’re going to put your hand in a hole and a rattlesnake bites it the first time, then you go back there a second time, it bites you the second time, what do you think you’re going to do the third time ?” Georgian farmer Lucious Abrams said at a recent event, as NPR reported earlier this month. Abrams took the USDA to court over loan discrimination.
What the Biden program does
The new debt relief program is open to Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native American, Alaskan or Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander farmers.
The federal government will pay up to 120% of the total amount eligible farmers have on Direct and Guaranteed Farm Service Agency (FSA) farm loans and farm storage facility loans (FSFL) starting January 1.
What it does not do is include indebted white farmers, including a dozen of 9 states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota, have sued the USDA over the program.
Berg acknowledged that the USDA has a history of discriminating against black farmers and other farmers of color. But he said the discrimination was “decades old at this point” and that Congress had failed to tailor the relief plan in question to the needs of current farmers.
“Instead, he chose to pick some racial groups and not others for a full forgiveness of the loan and to exclude other racial groups entirely, which is mind-boggling in its scope and clearly unconstitutional,” said Berg.
In a recent event, as reported by NPR, Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock said black farmers’ skepticism of the program was “very understandable.”
“These people have been disappointed time and time again,” he said. “This deep mistrust has built up over the years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be resolved overnight. But the best thing we can do right now is deliver this . ”