This piece was originally published by the Institute for Southern Studies.
Right now, if you do a web search of the words "racism" and "USDA," the majority of links will steer you to coverage of this week’s Shirley Sherrod affair, in which the African-American US Department of Agriculture staffer based in Georgia resigned after a conservative website reversed the meaning of a speech she gave last year to imply she would deny farm loans to whites.
It’s an astonishing development given the history of race relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that "the history of discrimination at the US Department of Agriculture…is well-documented"—not against white farmers but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially biased laws and practices.
It’s also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA’s checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African-American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans.
Forced Off the Land
Any discussion about race and the USDA has to start with the crisis of black land loss. Although the US government never followed through on its promise to freed slaves of "forty acres and a mule," African-Americans were able to establish a foothold in Southern agriculture. Black land ownership peaked in 1910, when 218,000 African-American farmers had an ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.
By 1992, those numbers had dwindled to 2.3 million acres held by 18,000 black farmers. And that wasn’t just because farming was declining as a way of life: blacks were being pushed off the land in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 1920, one of out seven US farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.
The USDA isn’t to blame for all of that decline, but the agency created by President Lincoln in 1862 as the "people’s department" did little to stem the tide—and in many cases, made the situation worse.
After decades of criticism and an upsurge in activism by African-American farmers, the USDA hosted a series of "listening sessions" in the 1990s, which added to a growing body of evidence of systematic discrimination:
Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials—especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South—spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA’s local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn’t spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.