The Department of Agriculture launched on Friday a commission aimed at addressing “historical discrimination” in agriculture, a sign the USDA is looking to overcome a decades-long history of systemic racism that Black farmers say has shrunk their numbers and kept families from building generational wealth.
The Equity Commission will help identify USDA programs and policies that have contributed to, exacerbated or perpetuated discrimination, the department said.
“The truth is, the deck has been stacked against Black farmers who for generations have been denied access to land and capital,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement to USA TODAY.
He vowed a “top to bottom” evaluation of decades-old farm programs to ensure they “more equitably serve” American farmers.
Black farmers today account for only 1.4% of all U.S. farmers, farm only 0.5% of the country’s farmland and generate only 0.4% of total U.S. agricultural sales every year. In contrast, about 14% of all U.S. farmers in 1920 were Black, according to that year’s agriculture census.
Black farmers say the USDA is at least partly responsible for those shrinking numbers. Decades of discrimination by the USDA, they say, have pushed thousands of their colleagues out of agriculture and have deeply impacted their earnings, their land and their chances to prosper.
The USDA appears to agree.
“To bring USDA from 1862 to 2021, we need the comprehensive structural review and recommendations to Congress that the newly-established Equity Commission will provide,” Vilsack said in his statement.
Building equity through the Equity Commission – perhaps
But Vilsack’s and the Biden administration’s efforts to reform the USDA will not be easy or straightforward. The new equity commission comes after previous USDA efforts have often stalled or proven insufficient, even as the harms of decades of racism endure.