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Black and brown farmers sue U.S. government over repealed debt relief

From left to right, Lester Bonner, Kara Boyd, John Boyd and Ben Crump stand at the National Mall in D.C. with a mule to represent the broken promise of "40 acres and a mule" made to former slaves.
Darryle A. Carter
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From left to right, Lester Bonner, Kara Boyd, John Boyd and Ben Crump stand at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with a mule to represent the broken promise of "40 acres and a mule" made to former slaves. The first three are represented in the lawsuit by Crump, a civil rights attorney.

After debt relief promised under the American Rescue Plan Act was repealed under a section of the Inflation Reduction Act, farmers of color are suing the U.S government.

A class action lawsuit was announced this week alleging that the U.S. government broke its promise of debt relief to Black and brown farmers.

In 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act allocation $4 billion of debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers in response to previous discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That included Black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian farmers. The relief had been stalled by lawsuits from multiple banks and white farmers.

The provision was repealed under the Inflation Reduction Act this August, which replaced it with $3 billion relief for economically distressed farmers of any race. It also included $2.2 billion for farmers who can prove the USDA discriminated against them.

With more eligible farmers, there may be fewer funds available to those originally promised the money, according to Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who filed the suit.

“The Black and brown farmers relied on the promise from the government,” he said. “There are several farmers facing foreclosure.”

He also said the Inflation Reduction Act funding puts the additional burden on farmers to prove they have been discriminated against by the USDA.

Princess Williams was one of the 14,000 farmers that received letters from the USDA promising debt relief and has joined the class action suit. In anticipation of those funds, she borrowed additional money to support her new farm in Virginia. At a press conference, she said the change is putting her in a “total financial bind.”

“As a matter of fact, it was a slap in the face to see it was repealed after it was promised to us,” Williams said.

The lawsuit is requesting that the promise of debt relief be entered as an enforceable contract that was breached by the U.S. government and that the farmers receive appropriate compensation.

The USDA supported the debt relief under the American Rescue Plan Act and was ready to make payments to borrowers, according to Marissa Perry, the USDA press secretary. Three nationwide injunctions prevented it from sending out those payments.

“This litigation would likely have not been resolved for years,” she said in a written statement. “The Inflation Reduction Act — thanks to the leadership of Sens. Booker, Warnock, Stabenow, Manchin, and Schumer — moved to repeal those provisions and crafted something new.”

A recent study estimated that Black farmers lost around $326 billion worth of farmland over the past century due to discriminatory lending practices by the the USDA.

“They're trying to have access to capital and they've been denied at every turn,” Crump said.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.
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