By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director

Until recently, Juneteenth has been celebrated only in certain Black communities, with barbecues, parades, rodeos, and other festivities. A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” the holiday marks the day that the final enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were freed following the Emancipation Proclamation ­­– undoubtedly an event worth remembering. Despite its tremendous historical significance, Juneteenth has previously been largely unknown to and unobserved by most Americans due to its omission from history books and school curricula.

But last year, when June 19th fell in the middle of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, it drew the attention not just of the communities who have long commemorated the occasion, but also non-Black allies and lawmakers. Building on the growing awareness and interest, President Joe Biden this week signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, making 2021 the first year it will be recognized nationally.

While today is an opportunity to celebrate Black freedom, resilience, and excellence, it’s also a reminder of the incalculable physical, mental, and financial trauma that has been inflicted upon Black Americans for centuries ­­– and the work we still need to do to redress those injustices and achieve equality.

Though there have been attempts to do this, they have almost always been thwarted. The first such attempt occurred immediately after the end of the Civil War; to help newly-freed Black Americans achieve economic independence, Union General William T. Sherman commanded that 400,000 acres of property confiscated from Confederate landowners be redistributed to Black families in 40 acre plots. But within the year, the order was overturned and the land was seized – leaving most formerly enslaved individuals no choice but to turn to sharecropping, a notoriously abusive form of indentured servitude that kept Black Americans in an endless cycle of debt and poverty.

Regrettably, it doesn’t seem we’ve learned from our mistakes; here we are, more than 150 years later, about to break yet another promise to Black communities and Black farmers.

In an effort to make up for longstanding systemic discrimination in the agriculture sector, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced its plans to forgive Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American, and Pacific Islander farmers’ loans through the agency. (All of these groups have endured institutional racism that has hindered their success in agriculture, but we’re just focusing on Black farmers in this article.) The move was authorized by Congress’s passage of the American Rescue Plan back in March.

Though the initiative was welcomed by much of the agricultural community, including National Farmers Union (NFU), some have complained that offering assistance to farmers of certain races but not others violates section 1 of the 14th amendment, which forbids federal or state governments from denying “any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Using the equal protection clause as justification, no fewer than five federal lawsuits have been filed against USDA challenging the program’s constitutionality. In response to one of the lawsuits, filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a federal judge temporarily suspended the program.

It is true that the Constitution promises all Americans equal protection of the law, but it’s important to note that there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, a government entity can treat different races differently if doing so is deemed necessary to achieve a “compelling state interest” – say, to recompense for the harms of its past discrimination. The standards of proof for this are quite high; the entity must provide evidence of its discrimination and demonstrate “that the present effects of the discrimination requires race-conscious remediation measures.”

In this instance, both requirements can easily be met. Between 1965 and 1997, the USDA published several reports enumerating its own history of racial discrimination. The agency admits to engaging in inequitable practices such as delaying or denying loans, refusing to offer technical assistance, intentionally withholding information about federal farm programs, and failing to tailor programs so that they are culturally relevant – all of which has undermined Black farmers’ professional success.

The data behind these practices can be shocking: a 2001 report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that Black farmers in some states waited three times longer than white farmers for loan decisions and were rejected three times as often.

According to USDA’s assessment, “discrimination has been a contributing factor in the dramatic decline of Black farmers over the last several decades.” A century ago, about 14 percent of American farmers were Black; today, after unfair treatment squeezed most out of business, only about 1.4 percent are. During that time, Black farmers lost about 90 percent of their land, and hundreds of billions of dollars of generational wealth with it.

It’s hard to fathom a way to right the wrongs of institutional racism that doesn’t include some element of “race-conscious remediation measures.” As the lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw notes, “treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.” After decades of wildly disparate access to financial and technical support, Black farmers and white farmers are in meaningfully different situations and treating them the same way could perpetuate already existing inequities.

Take the size and profitability of Black- and white-owned farms. The average white-owned farm is 444 acres and nets $17,190 in farm income. In comparison, the average Black-owned farm is less than a third the size, at 132 acres, and earns $2,408 in income, about one-seventh as much. Because federal farm assistance is generally designed in a way that favors larger, wealthier farms, without accounting for historic inequities or disadvantages, these programs have mostly only contributed to the problem: in 2019, white farmers received 99.4 percent of trade aid payments, despite accounting for only 95 percent of American farmers.

Given that, it is unsurprising that there has been only marginal progress in increasing the number of Black farmers, and some reported growth may be due mostly to changes in data collection and framing. We can’t reasonably expect that continuing on this same route of treating different things the same way will somehow result in a better outcome – instead, lawmakers and the administration need to think critically about what kinds of policies and programs can level the playing field so that Black farmers finally have a fair shot at success.

Debt forgiveness is just a small piece of that puzzle. Only about 16,000 farmers qualify for relief, which is fewer than 1 in 10 farmers of color. Many of the others either were unable to secure loans through USDA, chose not to because they don’t trust the agency, or weren’t even aware that financial resources were available to them. (We discussed some of these issues in an earlier article.) And that doesn’t account for the hundreds of thousands who have already left the industry due to discrimination and inadequate support. Those farmers and ex-farmers can’t be forgotten in our push for racial equity in agriculture.

In addition to debt forgiveness, there are other measures that can help Black farmers succeed, including prioritizing their needs in federal farm programs, offering educational opportunities, closing heirs’ property loopholes, providing legal support, investigating civil rights complaints at USDA, facilitating access to land, and reigning in corporate power. Some legislators are already taking steps to implement these provisions with the introduction of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which NFU called “the most comprehensive piece of food and agricultural justice legislation proposed in modern American history.”

Between these actions, there’s clear path forward to racial equity in agriculture – and Juneteenth is the perfect day to take the first step.

New to Juneteenth? Learn more about the history of the holiday and how it’s traditionally celebrated here. Cities across the country are hosting Juneteenth-related events – with a quick Google search, you can find one near you!

Like what you’ve read? Join the conversation at National Farmers Union’s Facebook page.

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