Whenever you see farmers in movies 99.99997% of the time you probably see a rugged looking white guy struggling to feed his family and provide food for the whole of America. A noble existence if there ever was one. Unless you’re watching Roots, the 1970’s mini-series based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name. Then you’re definitely seeing a black farmer. In fact any movie set during slavery and you’re 100% guaranteed to see only black farmers.
That’s just how it was. The slaves didn’t just bend over in the hot sun and sleep on dirt floors. There were many, who against all odds, made sure the crops yielded and the livestock flourished. It was almost as if their lives, and everyone they loved and also despised, depended on it. Slaves were the farmers, the builders, the carpenters, the cooks, the drivers, and much of what went into making a plantation successful. And take my word for it they didn’t get a lot of support from the management to make it all happen.
So when slavery ended the slave owners didn’t just lose unskilled labor, they lost hundreds of years of institutional knowledge. Giving slaves 40 acres and mule was the most threatening thing a former slave owner could imagine. That is other than giving that slave 40 acres of his own land. That was briefly on the table. Now 40 acres and a mule is a great oversimplification of what was actually talked about but there was no way these scumbag slave owners were going to let any of this happen just because they lost a war.
Ok yeah, I called them scumbags. C’mon, they were scumbags, they financed a war to keep slaves. Sure it was their culture. Their daddy’s did it, their religion codified it, everything around them told them it was ok to own another human and treat them like livestock. Livestock that could year after year pull crops out of your fields and build furniture and maintain your property that is. Oh they could also read and write if they let them learn but they mostly didn’t. If on some level people didn’t understand how evil this whole thing was then they truly were monsters. And it’s this lack of reckoning, of examination, of even facing this history that is tearing us apart, again, today.
So before we get back to today what happened to 40 acres and a mule? Well that got killed and what happened next was slavery 2.0. Basically the north gave up trying to protect former slaves from the hostile south and bailed on the whole notion of reconstruction. As a result hardly any former slaves could get land, housing, jobs, access to banks, basically all the stuff you need to survive in society and many of them ended up back on the plantations with paltry wages and terrible working conditions. Only now they were technically free.
And then you know all the rest. Jim Crow laws to prevent voting rights. Laws to prevent home ownership. Predatory lending practices. Uneven laws making it easy to jail black men. Lynchings, entire towns are burned down, the KKK, jesus no wonder we can’t teach this shit to kids, it’s horrible. But eventually we’re going to have to, everyone recognizes that right? Our failure to own up to our past is constantly catching up to us as a nation.
So anyway some form of wealth theft, from discriminatory banking, to redlining, to predatory loans, to exclusion from the GI bill and agriculture programs takes new forms throughout the twentieth century until, well today. And that brings me back to the black farmer. In 1920 there were 1 million black farmers, today there are less than 50,000. 14% of all farms in 1920 we’re black owned and today it’s 2%. A century of discriminatory banking, exlusion from federal agriculture programs, among other factors, has decimated black farmers and the generational wealth that went with it. Not to mention the centuries of American farming know-how lost instead of being capitalized on and expanded. We’ll never really know how things could have been different if former slaves were just allowed to be farmers.
So in 2021 black farmers were promised 4 Billion dollars in debt relief as part of the pandemic relief package. Along with indigenous, hispanic, and other marginalized groups the debt relief was an acknowledgement of a century of discriminatory practices by the US government and a whole lot of other entities. But not only historical discrimination, the debt relief was also a response to modern banking practices. Remember Trump’s farm subsidies? Turns out only .1% of the estimated 26 Billion in subsidies went to black farmers, even though they make up 2% of all farmers. This was mostly due to black farmers not being integrated into the farming subsidy system and existing discriminatory banking methods. So while this debt relief is hardly enough to reverse the damage done it also helps to bring these groups into the system and prevent future discrimination. Possibly encouraging a resurgence in black and other minority farms. Wow, a little bit of justice is finally served.
But then the totally expected happened. The money has been blocked, for over a year, by, wait for it, oh you know what it is. A coalition of white farmers who are saying in court that giving these farmers debt relief based on the color of their skin is inherently racist and therefore unlawful. Yep, you read that right. The government acknowledging that it discriminated against people of color for over a century and trying to make some amends is now being racist. What were they before?
So let me try to wrap my head around this. You’re a farmer, or in the biz somehow, and you learn that other farmers have been discriminated against for a century and are about to get some federal relief that historically you would have gotten in the first place. And your first reaction is “whoa, hang on a minute buddy, what about me? I don’t think so.” You can call it whatever you want but it basically boils down to that. So, to these guys, the color of someone’s skin is actually more important than the fact that their fellow industry folk have been discriminated against. It’s mind blowing logic and lack of introspection and empathy. See the pattern?
So who are these farmers objecting to this? One is Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller who filed as a private citizen and said the debt relief would ”lead only to disunity and discord”. To which I muttered out loud, what the hell does that even mean? There’s a lot to be said about the commitment of the Biden administration to see this through. To how the bill may have been hastily written and has some easy legal flaws that might not hold up in court. And that’s just how the whole thing keeps happening right?
One hundred and fifty years ago a winning war power makes a promise to help the slaves start a new life. And within a decade they capitulate to the white men who didn’t want that to happen and basically say it’s not worth the fight. And so it goes, broken promise after broken promise, and still the same old forces trying to stop justice being served. Black farmers are just one of a million examples.