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Black Farmers Say Judge’s Dismissal of Lawsuit Is Continuation of Jim Crow

The farmers say the government broke its promise when Congress repealed a $4 billion debt relief program.

On day 18 of a partial government shutdown, Black Farmer's Association President John Boyd plants winter wheat in one of his fields in Baskerville, Virginia, on January 8, 2019.

Farmers of color plan to appeal a recent federal court judge’s ruling, which they say is a continuation of Jim Crow and erases their commitment to right the historical wrongs against them.

Six months ago, John Boyd Jr., Kara Boyd, Lester Bonner, and Princess Williams filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, including the United States Department of Agriculture. The farmers alleged the government broke its promise when it failed to pay the eligible debt for farmers of color because Congress repealed a $4 billion debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — which includes Black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian communities.

Instead, they created a race neutral program to replace it, which the plaintiffs say was a “blatant attempt to skirt its contractual commitments” to them and other farmers. As a result, farmers can’t pay off their debts, according to the lawsuit.

“They have to know that this is a continuation of Jim Crow, and a continuation of what free Black men and women went through in this country. This is a continuation of that because we see it as another broken promise,” Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said last week. “Just like my forefathers, I ain’t giving up the fight.”

The U.S. Justice Department argued in a March 10 filing that the legislation established the financial assistance program, “not contractual undertakings.” The department asked for the complaint to be dismissed for “failure to state a plausible claim for relief.”

Senior Judge Edward J. Damich for the United States Court of Federal Claims agreed in an April 27 opinion, saying there wasn’t an expressed or implied-in-fact contractual agreement between the farmers and the federal agency.

“Instead, the program reflects Congress’ intent only to “declare a policy to be pursued until the legislature shall ordain otherwise,” not an intent “to create private contractual or vested rights,” Damich wrote.

The original loan forgiveness program at the center of the complaint passed in March 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, offering up to 120% of the outstanding indebtedness to address historical inequities and funding disparities by the USDA.

Black farmers saw this as the first step to repair the broken relationship with the federal government, especially after the landmark Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit alleging the USDA discriminated against Black farmers from 1983 to 1997 when they applied for federal financial assistance, and failed to respond to complaints of discrimination. The court approved a settlement in 1999. While some Black farmers received payments, thousands did not because of confusing paperwork, filing deadlines, denials of claims, processing issues and attorney malpractice, NPR reported.

In June 2021, the same month the USDA planned to start loan payments to eligible borrowers, a judge issued a restraining order on the program in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of white farmers alleging that debt relief racially discriminated against them.

“The discrimination is just not with the USDA. It also goes deep into the court system,” farmer Corey Lea told Capital B in December. “It’s crazy how the white farmers got it done within 30 days and Black farmers, if they get any justice at all — most of the time, no — they’re in [the courtroom] for years. It’s a systemic problem.”

Rather than implement the existing loan forgiveness program, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last year, replaced it with assistance for a broader group of “distressed borrowers.”

The act provides $125 million for technical assistance regarding food, agriculture, and agricultural credit to underserved farmers, ranchers, or forest landowners, including those living in high poverty areas. Another program provides $2.2 billion for farmers who have experienced discrimination prior to January 2021 by the Agriculture Department’s farm lending programs. Recipients can receive up to $500,000 each.

In September, all parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit in response to the Inflation Reduction Act. A month later, Boyd Jr. filed suit. He said the relief from the original program in the American Rescue Plan Act would’ve made a big difference in helping farmers to wipe their slate clean — especially for Bonner and Williams, who have struggled to make ends meet or pay off mounting bills.

“This administration … just abandoned us, left us out there high and dry. That’s why I turned to the courts,” Boyd Jr. said.

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