June 02, 2022

Warren, Booker, Warnock, Sanders to USDA: We Urge You to Act to Address Discrimination Against Black Farmers

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - Today United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent a letter to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack expressing concerns regarding USDA’s historic discrimination towards Black farmers and staff and requesting information about USDA’s efforts to remedy these issues. In the letter, the lawmakers detail the failure of USDA to adequately address longstanding reports of discrimination, ask for information about actions being taken, and provide recommendations on steps to help address the issue.

“It is within your authority to take immediate action to address the concerns raised by Black farmers and work to put the USDA on a more equitable path moving forward, and we ask you to do so without delay,” wrote the lawmakers. 

For decades, farmers of color have experienced discrimination, including land and wealth loss, been denied access to federal relief and support programs, and had their civil-rights claims ignored. Currently, less than two percent of all farmers in the U.S. are Black, a precipitous decline from 14 percent a century ago. Systemic discrimination and civil-rights concerns at USDA have been well documented over the last century. As early as 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) found that USDA discriminated against Black farmers when providing loan and conservation payments. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office published a report detailing the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil  Rights (OASCR)’s failures to sufficiently address civil-rights claims filed. Black and minority farmers and USDA staff who have spoken up against these actions have faced retaliation and further discrimination in their attempts to access USDA programs or conduct their work.

In September 2021, USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report which evaluated OASCR’s handling of a number of civil-rights complaints received between 2016 and 2019, finding that it took an average of more than 630 days for a complaint to be processed. This review period became increasingly longer during this timeframe, jumping from 594 days in 2017 to 799 days in 2019. Additionally, the report found instances where cases were closed altogether without an adequate investigation. The report made 21 recommendations, including updating the existing guidance to expedite the complaint processing time and calling for OASCR to address their past failure to implement USDA’s civil-rights goals and objectives when reviewing complaints. 

In March 2022, the USDA established the Equity Commission to “objectively confront the hard reality of past discrimination and its lingering harm; helping USDA build back  better, and serve our customers more fairly and equitably.” The Commission was created following President Biden’s Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government and funding under the American Rescue Plan Act. In the letter, the lawmakers request that USDA take several actions to help address discrimination against Black farmers, including the following: 

  • Use existing USDA authorities to implement changes to address decades of discrimination.
  • Establish an independent oversight board to supervise OASCR’s handling of civil-rights complaints.
  • Appoint a civil-rights ombudsperson to assist farmers in navigating the complaints process. 
  • Address the current complaints process.

In February 2021, the lawmakers reintroduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act to remedy USDA’s documented decades of discrimination against Black farmers. Their bill would create an independent oversight board that would review the civil-rights complaints made against USDA. The legislation would reform OASCR by codifying a moratorium on farm foreclosures when a civil-rights complaint is being considered. It would also protect the remaining communities of Black farmers from further land loss, and it would work to restore the land loss many Black farmers have already experienced by establishing new land grants.