Georgia is the state that gave Democrats their Senate majority, and one of the two senators who accomplished it, Raphael Warnock, should be taking bows alongside President Biden when the White House’s “Help is Here” tour visits the peach state on Friday. Warnock is responsible for getting debt relief for Black farmers into the American Rescue Plan, an issue that has eluded meaningful action for decades, and one that he is deeply familiar with having grown up in rural Georgia.
It is highly unusual for a freshman senator in their first months in office to notch such a notable achievement, but his election as the 50th Democrat made passage possible of the $1.9 trillion package. And so a grateful Democratic leadership wants to make sure the voters recognize how central he is to the change Biden promised to deliver.
Warnock will be on the ballot next year and the Republican-controlled legislature in Georgia is passing all sorts of barriers to voting to discourage a high turnout that benefits Democrats—and to ensure they get a different outcome in November 2022, when Warnock will be running for his first full Senate term.
Tucked into the massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill is a provision, for which Warnock is directly responsible, creating a $5 billion fund aimed at benefiting farmers of color who historically have been marginalized and need help to cover outstanding debts and avoid foreclosure—help, by the way, that white farmers routinely receive. Fully $4 billion of the total would go toward debt relief, and $1 billion would provide technical assistance and grants, much belated help to right a grievous historical wrong.
“Almost from its inception, U.S. farm policy has been racist,” says Zoe Willingham, co-author of a 2019 report on Black farmers for the Center for American Progress. The government’s documented history of denying federal loans to Black farmers led to the loss of about 90 percent of their land between 1910 and 1997, while white farmers lost only about 2 percent. “The first meaningful action for Black farmers is in the federal financial loan forgiveness in the American Rescue Plan,” says Willingham, who credits grassroots farmer groups and strong progressive leaders like Warnock for generating the support in Congress. “It’s been thrilling to see the leadership he’s taken on.”
Almost immediately upon arriving in the Senate, Warnock proposed a stand-alone bill, Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. Its central component is loan forgiveness, and working with his Democratic colleagues Cory Booker and Ben Ray Lujan, he got the first meaningful action on this long and deep-seated problem of financial relief for Black farmers. “I do hope this is lifted up by Biden as a huge victory,” Willingham told The Daily Beast. “He has highlighted a forgotten segment of rural America, and that is rural communities of color.”
Warnock grew up in public housing in rural Georgia, where his mother as a teenager picked cotton as a sharecropper. “40 acres and a mule” was the federal government’s promise to distribute land to freed Blacks after the Civil War. That was a failed promise, and in 1999, 16 years after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights described in detail the discrimination against Black farmers, the USDA (Department of Agriculture) settled a lawsuit with Black farmers to pay damages.
It’s known as the Pigford case, named after one of the farmers, and it was a moral victory that fell far short on the financial end. “It marked the recognition of the battle for farmers, but it in no way made up for the century of discrimination they suffered,” says Willingham.
As a senator, Barack Obama sponsored the Claims Remedy Act for another round of payments. Among the cosponsors was fellow Senator Joe Biden. In 2010, with both men in the White House, Obama signed the $1.15 billion legislation, saying it would bring an end to what he called “a painful chapter in American history.” Conservatives attacked it as backdoor reparations, and while a billion dollars is not nothing, it did very little to redress the loss of land and the degradation of Black rural communities.
When the American Recovery Plan passed with debt relief for Black farmers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called to congratulate John Boyd, the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. A fourth-generation farmer in Baskerville, Virginia, Boyd has suffered directly at the hands of racist USDA county agents, and after decades of activism, protesting around the country and lobbying lawmakers, he knows all the players in Washington.
Vilsack called him twice to “calm the waters” when he was going through Senate confirmation for a second tour of duty at the USDA. “I told him (Vilsack) things can’t be the same as they were under Obama. He has to be more aggressive about confronting discrimination in the debt write-downs and debt write-offs. It’s the behavior and the culture, that’s why we call it (USDA) ‘The Last Plantation.’”
Boyd, 55, grows corn, wheat, and soybeans, and has a hundred head of beef cattle on 114 acres of land. He’s been farming for 38 years, long enough to have experienced the most blatant forms of discrimination. He described to the Daily Beast how the local county agent was “the next thing to God,” lording it over the Black farmers, seeing them only one day a week and “loudly and boastfully” calling them “boy” and lobbing racial insults. “We called it Black Wednesday,” says Boyd.
Of 157 agricultural loans made in Boyd’s home of Mecklenburg County, just two were to black farmers. Loan applications for local white farmers took 30 days to process; the same application for black farmers took 387 days.
During the Trump administration, Boyd met with Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, who told him Black farmers had to “get big or get out.” Boyd says he replied, “How are we going to get big when you won’t lend us any money?” In the CARES Act, nearly all of the billions of dollars slated for farmers went to white farmers, according to USDA data.
GOP Senator Lindsey Graham has characterized the $5 billion fund set aside in the American Recovery Plan for debt relief for marginalized farmers “reparations,” a loaded term. Boyd has lobbied for Graham’s support over the years and says the South Carolina Republican is “very cordial, but he never did anything about” the issue. “We’ve gone through so much history from slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow,” Boyd says, “and now we have a chance to get some help, and he’s taking potshots at it.”
The debt relief is for Black, Hispanic, Native Americans “and any group that fits the designation of being marginalized,” says Boyd. At the end of our interview, he said there was one thing he wanted in this article, and that was his message: “Don’t give up especially young people, who are doing this work, you’ve got to keep pushing.” In 2003, he rode his wagon pulled by two mules to Washington, DC to protest. It took him 17 days. He had a sign that said, “40 acres and Struggles,” the name of his mules. “People laughed at me, and here we are all these years later finally getting some justice.”