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Debt relief for Black farmers shows challenges of pursuing racial equity with policy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For decades last century, racism in the federal government's loan programs for farmers drove many Black farmers deep into debt. Many lost their land, and that is one reason why last year's pandemic relief package included billions of dollars in loan forgiveness for Black and other minority farmers. But then that federal program run by the Department of Agriculture got ensnared in lawsuits. As NPR's Adrian Florido reports, the program's fate says a lot about the challenges in President Biden's promise to pursue racial justice in government.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Jasmine Ratliff was thrilled last year when the loan forgiveness program got through Congress.

JASMINE RATLIFF: There was a glimmer of hope there once we saw in the legislation that this debt relief would be for Black farmers.

FLORIDO: She's a farmer who leads the National Black Food & Justice Alliance. It was clear, she says, who would get loans forgiven.

RATLIFF: The legislation was specifically race based. And in order for legislation to correct race-based discrimination, it has to be explicit.

FLORIDO: But then white farmers in several states sued. A judge put the program on hold. Fast-forward to earlier this month, when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act. It repealed that debt relief program for Black and other minority farmers and replaced it with one that makes no mention of race, aiming instead to help, quote, "distressed" farmers and those who've experienced, quote, "discrimination." Ratliff and many Black farmers are angry.

RATLIFF: There's been a blatant watering down of the language. The vagueness of that language, it leaves Black farmers expected to trust the USDA to actually ensure that Black farmers receive the debt relief in which they are due.

FLORIDO: That's because who gets loans forgiven will depend now on how the USDA defines discrimination. If it's expanded beyond race, many Black farmers fear the program won't be effective in atoning for the USDA's racist history. In a call with reporters last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency has not started discussing who will qualify.

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TOM VILSACK: On the discrimination side, I think it's - we just have not had a chance to meet as a team to have any conversation about precisely how that program would be structured. It's something we're going to want to think carefully about.

FLORIDO: Kim Forde-Mazrui directs the University of Virginia's Center for the Study of Race and Law. He's not surprised that once it got tangled up in lawsuits, the government replaced a race-based program with one that is race neutral.

KIM FORDE-MAZRUI: It's safer to use race-neutral language.

FLORIDO: The trend in the courts has been to strike down race-explicit policies, he says. That's requiring the government to find workarounds, like using eligibility criteria that serve as proxies for race, things like income.

FORDE-MAZRUI: So it's a kind of compromise. It's more politically palatable, it's legally safer, but it definitely makes it less effective at addressing the race-specific harm of racial discrimination.

FLORIDO: In his first official act as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order to advance racial equity across the federal government. But the fate of the loan forgiveness program for Black farmers shows the kind of legal hurdles that federal agencies face when they try to do that. Dorothy Brown is a law professor at Emory University.

DOROTHY BROWN: Any time in this climate with this Supreme Court you're trying to help folks of color, you're going to get a lawsuit against you.

FLORIDO: That should not stop the government from aggressively pursuing that goal, she says; though, in this case, she acknowledges it may be seeking a pragmatic solution. A program targeting Black farmers is useless if the courts throw it out. A well-designed, race-neutral program may achieve similar goals.

BROWN: They should be able to figure out a way to prioritize those who the USDA has acknowledged have been discriminated against.

FLORIDO: Melanie Allen is program director for the Black Farmer Fund. It helps Black farmers find grants and other types of nontraditional, low-interest loans that don't saddle them with unpayable debt. She says she's hopeful the USDA will find a way to target its loan forgiveness to Black farmers.

MELANIE ALLEN: But at the same time, we're not naive, and we're not going to be putting all of our eggs in one basket hoping for the USDA to all of a sudden truly liberate and serve the needs of Black farmers.

FLORIDO: Black people's farms are still at stake, she says, and it's why Black farmers are organizing to find new ways to save them.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.