WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are fighting an intensifying proxy war over race and farming that could have much broader implications for the federal government's ability to direct aid to people of color.
The fight centers on which farmers get taxpayer help at a time when Biden has pledged to focus on equity and reversing systemic injustices across federal programs. Trump's allies argue that the same criteria long used to discriminate against farmers of color — race and ethnicity — can't be used to make them exclusively eligible for federal programs.
Whites have civil rights, too, they say in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Texas.
For Black farmers and civil rights groups, that's a proposition that defies reality — and yet they are taking it very seriously, with generations of civil rights law potentially in the balance.
"How is it OK for the government to harm on one hand but not to remedy on the other hand?" asked Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Blanding said Black farmers are worried that a federal court could block all programs that direct aid to farmers of color. If that happens, he said, it only makes sense that federal programs to assist people of color outside agriculture law would be next on the target list.
"We're concerned. ... You never know how it's going to go," Blanding said, adding that if you're a Black farmer "you have seen that things didn't always work in your favor."
Under Trump, the vast and disproportionate majority of trade-war-related relief money went to non-Hispanic white farmers — about 99.4 percent, according to one study. Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan set aside about $5 billion to wipe away the debts of Black, Hispanic and Asian farmers while providing them with $1 billion in technical assistance.
"The effort to assist Black farmers comes after decades of systemic discrimination and exclusion," Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in a statement. "Throughout the 20th century, Black farmers were denied the loans and subsidies available to white farmers, and untold generational wealth has been lost as a result."
Former Trump aides are suing to block the Biden administration from spending that money. They say reserving aid for "socially disadvantaged" farmers — defined by federal law as members of groups that have faced racial or ethnic discrimination — amounts to unconstitutional reverse discrimination against whites.
"This is a landmark civil rights case," Stephen Miller, head of America First Legal and Trump's White House senior policy adviser, said in a statement Thursday. "The stakes in this case could not be higher: The government must not be allowed to use its awesome authorities to punish, harm, exclude, prefer, reward or damage its citizens based upon their race or ethnicity."
America First Legal didn't respond to a request for an interview with Miller or other leaders of the Trump-centric group. The term "socially disadvantaged farmer," which appears dozens of times in the 2018 farm law that Trump signed, dates at least as far back as the 1990 version signed by President George H.W. Bush. For grant programs, Trump favored including other groups that included whites — such as veterans and beginning farmers — in eligibility criteria.
The suit asks a federal judge in Texas to overturn not just that program but all agriculture laws that define social disadvantage the same way. "The Court should declare unconstitutional any statute limiting the benefits of federal programs to 'socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,'" the plaintiffs write in their complaint.
The Agriculture Department is racing to implement the debt-relief policy, said Dewayne Goldmon, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's senior adviser for racial equity.
"We're just holding the accelerator to the floor," said Goldmon, who was the executive director of the National Black Growers Council until March. That's less about the lawsuit and more about "the urgency that's been described to us as we've been out talking to these borrowers," Goldmon said in an interview Friday.
The effort is complicated by a dearth of demographic data about farmers and about federal farm lending by race.
Often, the federal government has been a tool of discrimination rather than equity, from promoting slavery to the injustices that led to the 1999 Pigford settlement of lawsuits alleging discrimination against Black farmers, which has made some farmers reluctant to self-identify by race or ethnicity.
Experts estimate that there are fewer than 50,000 Black farmers in the U.S., down from closer to 1 million a century ago.
In early May, the Agriculture Department sent out forms to farmers to try to ascertain which borrowers qualify as members of socially disadvantaged groups.
Now, it is moving into a phase in which a second set of letters will go out telling about 13,000 farmers that they are eligible for the program and checking the details of the loans they got from the federal government. Most of the debts could be erased within a couple of months. In a second wave, the Agriculture Department plans to dispose of a few thousand guaranteed loans, which tend to be larger and more complex.
But all of that could come to a halt even more quickly than it started. In addition to the underlying suit, America First Legal filed a motion asking the judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the Agriculture Department's awarding aid on the basis of race or ethnicity.
"A preliminary injunction will not compel the defendants to withhold loan forgiveness from minority farmers and ranchers; it will merely require them to award loan forgiveness to farmers and ranchers without any regard to race," America First's lawyers wrote in a brief. "The defendants will have a choice in whether to respond to the proposed injunction by extending loan forgiveness to all farmers and ranchers, or whether to respond by withholding loan forgiveness from everyone."
For Black farmers and their advocates, the difficulty getting aid is nothing new.
"A lot of the improvements in equality that have been made over the years didn't come easily," Goldmon said, noting that one of his great-grandfathers was born a slave and that one of his grandfathers was born on a plantation. He said he believes the administration will prevail in court.
"I have full confidence in the Department of Justice," he said.