Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you now on The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina. The last week on the show, we spoke about the decades of discrimination that Black farmers and other farmers of color have experienced in the US. The exclusionary policies of the Federal Government are one important factor that contributed to Black farmers losing 12 million acres of land over the past century.
These discriminatory policies are hardly a thing of the past. For example, Black farmers received just 0.1% of the relief funds allocated to farmers under the Trump administration's COVID-19 stimulus packages. The American Rescue Plan passed in March, was supposed to finally begin to address these inequalities, by offering meaningful debt relief to Black farmers and other farmers of color.
When we checked in last week, the plan was finally scheduled to get underway, until Thursday when a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the program. The judge sided with the group of white farmers who claim the debt relief policy discriminates against them. Here's what Lloyd Wright, a farmer and the former director of the USDA Civil Rights office, told me last week about these types of lawsuits.
Lloyd Wright: For the last 150 years, white farmers have received almost all of the benefits from the Department of Agriculture. Now, that we're getting ready to give crumbs, to some extent, to people of color, American Indians, who they took the land from to begin with, and Blacks who cleared the land as slaves for them back generations ago. Now that they're getting ready to give crumbs to minorities, they have ants in their pants. They didn't get concerned four years ago, when the Trump Administration did emergency payments to farmers, and +99% of it went to white farmers. I didn't hear about lawsuits then concerned that people of color was not getting money.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Meanwhile, the USDA says that it is defending the debt relief plan despite the temporary hold, and that it plans to continue paying off loans for Black farmers, if and when the hold is lifted. For more, I am joined now by Congresswoman Alma Adams, who represents the extraordinary North Carolina 12th District. Representative Adams is also vice chair, of the House Committee on Agriculture. Representative Adams, thank you so much for being here.
Congresswoman Alma Adams: Thank you, Melissa. It's good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We had just done this story with farmer Wright when I then saw the news, that the debt relief was being put on hold. I was so hurt and angry. What was your initial reaction to learning this news?
Congresswoman Alma Adams: Well, Melissa, I was just devastated. I disagree with the judge's order, but I'm disappointed in the people who brought this misguided lawsuit as well. These borrowers were scheduled to receive the assistance as early as this month, and so this decision is going to delay the recovery for these farmers. They've suffered and they continue to suffer. We just need to stay on top of this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you had an opportunity to talk with these plaintiffs, with these white farmers, with the conservative groups who are defending them at court, what might you say to them about this set aside relief for farmers of color?
Congresswoman Alma Adams: First of all, I would talk to them about all of the past discrimination. The fact that these are farmers who are working to make sure that they provide for their families, to make sure that they're able to stay in business. I think I would try to at least appeal to whatever sensitivity they have, but I think it's important that we recap the history for people who don't seem to want to recognize it, and put it up in their faces.
The discrimination is something that I think we try to ignore, and we've seen it, not just with this situation, but with the distribution of funds for historically Black colleges and so forth. You know we've got what? 19 1890s that actually deal with agriculture in terms of their programs, so I think we have to make it very clear that we have not gotten, not even our fair share. These farmers have just not been treated fairly, and we should be able appeal to some sensitivity of these white farmers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The 1890s institutions those historically Black land-grants colleges and North Carolina A&T is among them, that's in your district. Talk about the history of agriculture associated also with Black education.
Congresswoman Alma Adams: Thank you, Melissa. Let me just say, North Carolina A&T is my alma mater twice. I have been very involved with doing work for historically Black colleges, universities and we have 19 1890s. Just as we started HBCUs many years ago, because our students that look like me and you could not attend the major majority culture schools. In North Carolina, we have North Carolina A&T, which is an 1890 land-grant. There's an 1862 North Carolina State, and we've seen discrimination throughout this process of funding for these schools.
They are very much involved with not only doing research, but we have worked through the Agriculture Committee to try to get increased support. As a matter of fact, just recently, we did have a hearing on Black farmers, and they talked a lot about not only the schools and so forth, but I think that we're going to have to continue. Right now what we see is that the state is required to match the funding from the federal government to our schools, and historically, that has not been done.
I've served 20 years in the North Carolina House, and it seems like we just couldn't find the funding for North Carolina A&T that was a one-one match, but yet we're able to match money to North Carolina State five and six times. That means, to me, that it's not a lack of funding. It's a lack of where we put our priorities, and so we've not put the priorities in terms of state government into supporting our 1890s, but these schools are valuable. They're important.
We are losing Black farmers day by day, the number is diminishing, so we want to keep young people interested in agribusiness and agriculture overall. One of the ways to do it is to make sure that we have the funding there to provide scholarships. The gentleman is right, you can't just give them money today and say, "Let's produce tomorrow." We've got to be realistic about it and make sure that the ample time is provided to do all those things that they need to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate you making that connection, and also that those inequities, not only in what we think of as payments directly to farmers, but to that whole system of college education also associated with those land-grants, how many years of inequalities there are. I'm wondering, we also heard from Mr. Wright talking about the possibility of restructuring aspects of the USDA. Given that you are sitting there in a leadership role on the Ag Committee, within Congress, is that something that you all have any capacity or power to do?
Congresswoman Alma Adams: Oh, yes we do. We provide oversight to USDA. I've always believed in making sure that we bring the stakeholders to the table, because folks like Mr. Wright, they're out here where the rubber meets the road. They're working day by day, and they're the ones who, I think realistically, can provide information to us that's helpful.
It is clear that we do handle the oversight, including North Carolina A&T, we've got to make sure that we take the advice of people who actually know this business.
You can't keep things as they are, just because these particular things have been in existence for many, many years. You always have to go back and revisit and revise, especially if things aren't working, and certainly they've not been working for our Black farmers, so yes, I would support that. I think, again, we probably need to have a follow-up hearing and have some discussion about it. We don't have to just have a hearing to discuss it, but I do think again, we have the oversight and there are many things that we can do in terms of holding folks accountable, putting pressure where pressure needs to be put.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted to also just ask you briefly about the legal argument here, because after the American Rescue Plan was passed back in March, you actually cited a 1995 Supreme Court decision, and defended the ability of Congress to act on the basis of race to remedy these effects of discrimination. Can you walk us through that just a bit here?
Congresswoman Alma Adams: I think race is something that people don't want to talk about as much, but there's a lot going on that shouldn't be. Historically, discrimination has existed, it's still there, the inequities are present. When the ruling poses a question how are we going to rectify these decades of discrimination and inequities when the law justified that discrimination, but they won't actively work to correct it? I think we have to hold them accountable to do that. That's where I think the Congress can come into play here.
We've got a lot of work to do and I think we can't let up and just let this continue to go because we'll never get the problem corrected. I think with all the discussion that we're having today, with so many things going on, race has got to be a part of it. People don't need to get upset and angry about it. It is real and we have to be realistic about it and try to understand it more. That's where I think the education is going to have to come into play.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Congresswoman Alma Adams represents North Carolina's 12th Congressional District. Thank you so much for being here.
Congresswoman Alma Adams: Thank you Melissa. You keep up the good work.
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