Addressing Discrimination and Ensuring Equity for Farmers of Color

Farmers of color – and especially Black farmers – have experienced a long history of government-sponsored discrimination, which has decimated the population of Black farmers in America today. Add your name if you agree: it's time to level the playing field for farmers of color.

American agriculture was built on the backs of Black farmers. But farmers of color – and especially Black farmers – have experienced a long history of discrimination. Over a century, black farmers were stripped of 80% of their farmland, amounting to millions of acres and hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wealth. This staggering loss didn’t happen by accident: it’s the result of decades of government-sanctioned discrimination

Following the Civil War, Black farmers built up millions of acres of farmland, but white landowners and lenders stripped Black farmers of their land by forcing them into debt and sometimes seizing their land outright through terror and manipulation. Meanwhile, the federal government purposefully excluded Black farmers from New Deal policies meant to provide relief to struggling farmers. Since then, USDA has systematically denied Black farmers access to critical farm programs and ignored civil rights claims. This pattern of federally-sanctioned discrimination continues to this day.

These policies have decimated the population of Black farmers in America. Whereas Black farmers made up 14% of the farming population in 1910, today Black farmers account for less than 2% of farmers, a number that may itself be unreliable due to the historic failure of the Agricultural Census to accurately count Black farmers. Black-owned farms are also far smaller on average than other farms, and the average full-time Black farmer makes just $2,408 compared to the $17,190 in farm income that the average white farmer makes. 

While our current farm economy is unsustainable across the board, the data make clear that it is especially dangerous for Black farmers, who have suffered disproportionately from consolidation, received a small fraction of total subsidies, and faced particularly vicious discrimination. My administration will work to dismantle the structures in USDA that perpetuate discrimination, protect the civil rights of Black farmers and other underrepresented farmers, and provide real access to land and credit – so we can achieve a new farm economy that works for everyone.

Dismantling the “Last Plantation” 

USDA has a long history of discriminatorily administering farm programs and then undermining the claims of those who dare to call it out, leading many of the farmers harmed by this misconduct to call the agency the “last plantation.” This history has been thoroughly and officially documented for decades, but still, administration after administration has failed to sufficiently address the problem. Tackling the legacy of discrimination against Black farmers and advancing a new generation of diverse farmers will be a top priority of a Warren USDA. That’s why I will immediately adopt structural changes to protect civil rights in USDA for farmers, farmworkers, and employees alike. Here’s where I’ll start: 

  • Transform the culture of USDA from the top down to root out discrimination. Rebuilding USDA into an agency that serves the interests of marginalized farmers will take leadership, courage, and consistent effort – starting at the top. I have already committed to diversifying the federal workforce, so that our agencies and their leadership reflect the people they represent and serve. In line with this goal, I will nominate a Secretary of Agriculture who has a demonstrated commitment to advocating for Black farmers, and I will staff USDA from top to bottom with people who share these priorities. I will also investigate reports of retaliation to ensure that if any employees were wrongly ousted from USDA after speaking out against discrimination, they are compensated and reinstated. I’ll also institute safeguards to prevent future retaliatory behavior, including by enforcing protections for individuals that flag wrongdoing. And my administration will center the voices of the Black farmers and activists that continue to push our government to address discrimination at USDA, often putting their livelihoods at risk. I will convene a White House town hall by the end of my first six months in office to ensure that these leaders at the frontlines are shaping our agricultural agenda at every step. 

  • Radically restructure the office that handles civil rights. To ensure that our new farm economy works for everyone, there need to be clear channels for farmers to defend their civil rights. Black farmers, particularly those active in the fight for civil rights, have faced retaliatory discrimination and been deprived of key assistance by the USDA. Although the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights (OASCR) was established within the USDA to protect the civil rights of farmers and USDA employees, it has instead ignored civil rights complaints and scuttled data. And today, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights – the highest position within OASCR – stands vacant. This ends in a Warren administration. I’ll staff the office from top to bottom with leaders firmly committed to defending farmers’ civil rights. I’ll also push for strict oversight through an independent civil rights oversight board to supervise the office’s handling of complaints and I’ll appoint a civil rights ombudsman to help Black and Brown farmers navigate the complaints process. My Department of Justice will further step in to investigate persistent misbehavior and ensure complaints are resolved – starting on day one.

  • Reform the civil rights complaint process to prevent abuse. In addition to reforming the structure of OASCR, it is essential to fix the complaints process. The backlog of complaints filed with OASCR is so deep that some have even died awaiting final decisions. In order to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination by USDA in federal court, farmers must first file a complaint with OASCR. However, the statute of limitations for a federal suit continues to run while OASCR processes the complaint, allowing the agency to sit on complaints until the set period for federal lawsuits has run out – a loophole commonly exploited by past administrations. To stop the agency from running out the clock, I’ll push for the statute of limitations to be paused at the moment a complaint is filed with OASCR and require that the agency reach a final agency determination within 180 days. In order to prevent the agency from arbitrarily dismissing complaints before the deadline, the civil rights oversight board will examine dismissals – including initial dismissals of “non-complaints” for lack of jurisdiction – to make sure they have merit. I’ll also develop a process allowing farmers to appeal OASCR’s decision to an Administrative Law Judge for a final agency decision. And to prevent farmers from losing their farms to foreclosure while the complaint process plays out, I’ll reinstate a moratorium on the foreclosures against farmers who have outstanding discrimination complaints. I’ll also simplify the civil rights violation reporting process, enforce mandated reporting on complaints by race, gender, and age, and task the independent civil rights board with conducting regular compliance reviews so that USDA can be held accountable from the outside, too.

  • Stop USDA from letting itself off the hook for civil rights complaints. USDA’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC), which represents USDA as legal counsel, has a history of unlawfully inserting itself in the civil rights complaint process. This is a flagrant conflict of interest – and a violation of federal law. I will direct the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct rigorous oversight over OGC to stop it from squashing complaints, and I will make sure every senior official in OGC is committed to defending the civil rights of Black farmers and other marginalized farmers. 

  • Address discrimination in the local administration of farm program resources. Local entities such as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) county committees have a long history of discrimination in administering farm program resources. I will use federal power under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to fully and independently investigate claims of discrimination within FSA county committees and withhold federal funding where discrimination is found, building on past successes in desegregation. I’ll ban federal funds – like those distributed by the Commodity Credit Corporation – from supporting companies with a history of discriminatory practices, and I’ll improve the guidelines that county committees use to determine eligibility for federal programming to lower barriers to participation by marginalized farmers. But ending discrimination isn’t enough: we need to ensure that Black and Brown farmers have real power in administering programs, and I will work hand in hand with them to develop and pilot longer-term structural reforms to meaningfully increase access to agricultural programs. 

  • Strengthen USDA’s focus on farmworkers. Two million plus farmworkers – 80% of whom are Latinx – labor on American land. They get paid low wages to work in dangerous conditions, where they are exposed to harassment and environmental hazards, like extreme heat. As president, I will make sure that farmworkers share in the benefits of our new farm economy. I’ll start by fighting to pass the Fairness for Farm Workers Act to end the exclusion of farmworkers from our labor protections, and I will further direct the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) to include farmworkers and farmers of color more prominently in their research, so that we understand the challenges farmworkers face – and work to fix them. 

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It's time to level the playing field for farmers of color

But I won’t stop there. As president, I will establish an Equity Commission staffed by Black, Brown, and indigenous farmers, researchers, and activists to unearth the full range of USDA’s discrimination – and to develop real, long-term solutions that will last beyond my administration. But this Commission can’t be just another report gathering dust on the shelf. Past task forces – like the seminal 1997 Civil Rights Action Teamshined a light on USDA’s abysmal civil rights record and identified meaningful solutions, but because of USDA’s “agonizingly slow” response, no significant progress has been made. That’s why, in addition to updating and implementing relevant recommendations of past reports, I further commit to putting real political muscle behind implementing the Equity Commission’s recommendations to end the systematic mistreatment of Black, Brown, and indigenous farmers once and for all. 

Protecting Black Land Ownership and Fulfilling Past Commitments 

As a result of the federal government’s systemic discrimination, Black land ownership has plummeted, costing Black farmers hundreds of billions of dollars and expanding the racial wealth gap. We have to address the structures that continue to push Black farmers off of their land, including the fragile forms of landownership that have been so easily exploited in the past, while also fulfilling past commitments to address the historic discrimination they’ve faced.

  • Protect heirs’ property owners. One commonly used mechanism of exploitation is the forced sale of land held as “heirs’ property.” While heirs’ property sales are not the only factor contributing to black land loss, they have been a reliable means of exploitation due to the unstable nature of heirs’ property ownership and its widespread use across the South. Even today, heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of black-owned land in the South. Similarly, it is estimated that Latinx communities in the Southwest have lost over a million acres of property under partition sales, and a new generation of Latinx farmers are at risk today. I will establish programs to assist heirs’ property owners and make sure they retain access to their land, including building on successes in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow heirs’ property owners to not only access USDA programs, but also other federal programs in FEMA and HUD. I will also fully fund the relending program enacted in the 2018 Farm Bill to expand support services for farmers of color, including legal and technical assistance to help farmers hold on to their land – and prioritize lending organizations operating in states that have enacted model legislation that protects heirs’ property ownership.

  • Protect Native lands from challenges related to fractionated ownership. Native American communities have also experienced challenges related to fractionated land ownership, caused by a destructive federal policy from the late 1800s that allotted tribal lands held in common to individual tribal members and sold additional tribal lands to non-Native settlers and commercial interests. This policy eventually led to roughly two-thirds of all reservation lands being taken from tribes without compensation. Several generations later, individual tribal allotments are now co-owned by many people – sometimes hundreds or thousands – making it difficult to use the land or coordinate activities on it. Government policy created this problem, and government must help fix it. That’s why I will expand funding for the Indian Tribal Land Acquisition Loan Program and the Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program, USDA programs that help tribal governments acquire land and preserve it for future generations. And I will also push Congress to provide another infusion into the Trust Land Consolidation Fund.

  • Make bankruptcy equitable for Black farmers. In farming, the denial or delay of a loan can lead to the loss of the entire planting or harvesting season, and loan officers have used discriminatory loan practices to keep Black farmers from accessing the resources they need to produce enough crops to sustain their farm. Over time, this can lead to foreclosure, but our current bankruptcy laws prevent farmers from restructuring their finances and avoiding foreclosure because of the off-farm jobs they have to take to support themselves and their families. These laws disproportionately harm Black farmers, who are more likely to need off-farm income to make ends meet. I will lower the on-farm income requirement for filing for Chapter 12 bankruptcy so that more farmers can restructure their debt and avoid losing their farms.

  • Address the mishandling of the Pigford payments. In 1997, Timothy Pigford filed a class action suit to hold USDA accountable for years of discrimination against Black farmers. Pigford won a billion-dollar settlement that Black farmers were eligible to apply for – but tens of thousands of these claims were not heard. The Obama administration attempted to remedy this situation by funding an additional settlement known as Pigford II. However, too much remains unknown about the impact of the Pigford settlements on eligible farmersincluding farmers still waiting on a formal hearing regarding their debt relief claims. I will fund an inquiry to investigate the status of claimants who did not receive payments in the Pigford I settlement and develop solutions to address any mishandling of the Pigford payments. 

  • Reopen OASCR complaints that have been time-barred due to agency negligence. During the George W. Bush administration, 14,000 complaints of discrimination were filed with OASCR. However, from 2001-2008, only one of those complaints was found to be meritorious. Under President Obama, the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights ordered a full review of these cases and found 3,800 cases that could be meritorious. Unfortunately, for 80% of those cases the statute of limitations had already lapsed, leaving the farmers unable to receive relief. I will work with Congress to relax the statute of limitations for those complaints, so that the farmers can finally get the relief they were entitled to under the law.

  • Support the mental health of Black and Brown farmers and farmworkers. Farm owners and workers are three to five times more likely to kill themselves on the job than other professionals. In addition to the general stresses of the modern farm economy, Black and Brown farmers also have to navigate personal and financial threats that make high-quality mental health care all the more necessary. My plan for Medicare for All will ensure farmers and farmworkers have comprehensive mental health services, and my plan to invest in rural America makes sure we have enough mental health providers in underserved areas. I will scale up apprenticeship programs to support partnerships between unions, high schools, community colleges, and a wide array of health care professionals to build a health care workforce that is rooted in the community. I’ll also lift the cap on residency placements by 15,000 and significantly expand the National Health Service Corps and Indian Health Service loan repayment programs to increase the number of health professionals – including mental health professionals – in underserved and agrarian communities.

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Creating Real Access to Land and Credit  

Making amends for past discrimination won't be enough to ensure that new and beginning farmers have access to the land, credit, and technical assistance they need to be successful today. That’s why I will also take steps to open the door for a new generation of diverse farmers. Here’s where I’ll start:

  • Develop a land trust to put land in new hands. Seventy percent of farmland currently in operation will change ownership over the next two decades. But as giant agribusinesses and foreign interests continue to buy up farmland, new farmers are at a disadvantage. The federal government can – and should – play an active role in ensuring that the next generation of farmers reflects the diversity of our country. That’s why I will establish a land trust dedicated to buying land from retiring farmers and selling it to new and diverse farmers interest-free, with specific benchmarks for sales to Black farmers.

  • Expand access to credit: The Farm Credit System was founded a century ago as a government-sponsored enterprise to provide credit for farmers – but it has strayed from its central mission and instead is pocketing big profits. What’s more, even though FCS provides roughy 40% of all agricultural loans, there is effectively no civil rights process in place for farmers who apply. I will require FCS to allocate 10% of its $5 billion in annual profits towards supporting new and diverse farmers through regional lending mechanisms, and I will benchmark and report on the share of profits benefiting Black farmers. Native American Community Development Financial Institutions also provide crucial access to credit in underbanked areas and for underbanked businesses, especially farmers. We should provide significant financial support to Native CDFIs.

  • Dedicate funding to education, training, and research for Black and marginalized farmers. The 1890 land-grant universities support the flourishing of Black farming communities – but they have been underfunded compared to other land-grant institutions. That’s why my plan commits to reinvesting in our land-grant universities, including by requiring states to fulfill the Congressional mandate to provide equal funding for 1890 land-grant universities. I have also pledged to invest a minimum of $50 billion in Historically Black College and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions. Local farm advocacy groups play an important role in connecting small farmers to critical resources. I will ensure that farm advocacy groups have access to necessary funding by more fully incorporating them into the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. And I will support USDA research on challenges facing Black farmers, farmworkers, and farmers of color.

  • Improve outreach and remove discriminatory barriers to accessing programs. Many Black and Brown farmers struggle to access federal programs because they don't get information on what these programs are, or how to use them, until it’s too late. What’s more, many USDA farm programs have conditions in place that disproportionately harm farmers of color – like restrictions barring people with drug-related felonies from farming hemp. I’ll work with community organizations that have a history of working with Black farmers, like co-ops, to conduct outreach and training so Black and Brown farmers get timely information on the programs and opportunities available to them. I will also push for the removal of discriminatory provisions, like the collateral consequences of drug-related arrests and conviction for farmers applying for loans. And I’ll put an end to discrimination by private lenders, who provide 42% of farm financing, by directing the CFPB to investigate them. 

  • Use race-specific data and oversight to hold USDA accountable for addressing racial disparities. When USDA uses blanket terms like "socially disadvantaged farmers," the most marginalized communities - like Black farmers - too often get left out. I will address this by establishing rigorous oversight and reporting requirements and setting specific funding goals to ensure that programs intended to address racial disparities, like Section 2501, are directly supporting farmers of color. After decades of miscounting black land ownership, I’ll address past misreporting on the status of Black farmers in the Agricultural Census by improving its reporting process to more accurately capture the number of Black-owned farms, reporting the methodological changes that have occurred since the previous reporting cycle, and properly informing the public on the meaning of these changes. I will require that program data on who receives federal resources and what amount be reported annually, broken out by race, ethnicity, and gender, and released to the public – so that farmers, advocates, and journalists can hold USDA accountable for equitably distributing these resources. And I will support this substantial reporting effort by reversing the Trump administration’s exile of ERS researchers.

Black farmers, researchers, and advocates have spent decades calling out the history of discrimination and fighting for change. I have been fortunate to learn from their experiences and am inspired by their resolve. By rooting out structural racism in our current system and incorporating the voices of those who have been the most impacted, we will build a new farm economy that is truly open to all.