The U.S. makes loans and grants to small farms to help them buy the seeds and other items they need to get started with a new year’s crop, to expand their land, or to buy equipment. The program can be a life-line for family farms.
But that isn’t how it has worked for black farmers. While whites submit applications and receive decisions within the 30 days allowed by law, black farmers like Lloyd Shaffer get nothing but humiliation, as Yes! Magazine reports. A white loan officer left Shaffer, who farms in Mississippi, ignored in a waiting room for an entire business day — eight hours — while white farmers who arrived after him went in and out. Three other times, the loan officer took Shaffer’s application from him and dropped it right into the trash.
The loan officer with the power to grant or deny a loan to John Boyd was sadistic too. Boyd, who went on to found the National Black Farmers Association, pleaded with the man for a $5,000 loan. “A white farmer comes in that I know in the neighborhood,” he told National Public Radio, “and instead of asking me to leave or he step out, he brought the white farmer in. They asked each other about their families and what was going on, and he handed him a farm operating check for $157,000. And then when he walked out the door, he said, hey, Earl, I need you to come back in next week and fill out that paperwork for this, now, right.”
Chantelle Walker’s experience was less personal. She told NPR that she was denied a loan to start a farm on her family’s three acres, while her white friends who applied at the same time all got the money they asked for. Walker applied and was turned down several more times. She and her friends all believed that the explanation was discrimination.
Thousands more black farmers had similar experiences and suffered financial and emotional hardship as a result. Blacks are losing their farms at five to six times the rate of whites. A federal judge explained why these government loans are so important:
Small farmers operate at the whim of conditions completely beyond their control; weather conditions from year to year and marketable prices of crops to a large extent determine whether an individual farmer will make a profit, barely break even or lose money. As a result, many farmers depend heavily on the credit and benefit programs of the United States Department of Agriculture to take them from one year to the next.
Black farmers sued the USDA and its Farmer’s Home Association (FmHA), which administered the financing program, for racial discrimination. It came out that from 1981 through 1996, FmHA disproportionately denied blacks loans, made them wait longer than whites to get money, or discouraged them from applying for assistance at all. The worst abuses were concentrated in the Deep South.
Black farmers lost out on a massive amount of money. The discrimination was so egregious that when the case finally settled, the government agreed to pay 18,000 black farmers more than $1 billion — and even that isn’t enough to compensate the individuals for what they lost. It divides up into an average of $69,500 per person, which, according to the National Black Farmers Association’s John Boyd, is not nearly enough to jump-start a farm. Viewed in that context, he says, each individual payout is “not a large number.”
Still, when you put those payouts together, they are enough to mess with Mississippi’s economy. The settlement checks that flooded in to blacks in Mississippi sent the state’s total income rocketing up. Between the second and third quarters of 2013, the state’s income grew more than any other state’s. That statistic says a lot: that the government cheated black farmers out of a whole lot of money; the government cheated them out of even more money than it looks like because the settlement underpays the victims; and Mississippi’s economy isn’t doing too well. That last point is highlighted by the fact that lots of farmers in other states got payouts too; it’s not as though the entire $1 billion flooded into one state.
The wronged farmers have had to wait a long time for this small measure of justice. The lawsuit was filed in 1997; the discrimination described in the case started 16 years before that; but the payouts are coming only now, 16 years after the litigation started. Many plaintiffs have died in the interim, including some who started the case and fought the hardest. They weren’t vindicated in their lifetimes, but they leave a legacy that may help some people stay on their land despite racists’ attempts to ruin them.
Photo credit: USDAgov. Black farmers protest racial discrimination in federal farm loan program.