A shovel overturned can flip so much more than soil, worms, and weeds. Structural racism - the ways in which social systems and institutions promote and perpetuate the oppression of people of color – manifests at all points in the food system. It emerges as barriers to land ownership and credit access for farmers of color, as wage discrimination and poor working conditions for food and farmworkers of color, and as lack of healthy food in neighborhoods of color. It shows up as discrimination in housing, employment, redlining, and other elements which impact food access and food justice.
Many people involved in creating food - from Haitian tomato pickers organizing in Florida, to Native Americans saving seeds in Arizona, to Black Detroit residents growing gardens in fractured neighborhoods – are simultaneously chipping away at structural racism. In the Harvesting Justice series we touch on many of these issues, starting with a look at African-American farmers and what they doing to win justice in the food system.
In 1920, one in every seven farmers in the U.S. was African-American. Together, they owned nearly 15 million acres. Racism, violence, and massive migration from the rural South to the industrialized North have caused a steady decline in the number of Black farmers. So, too, has, institutional racism in the agricultural policies of the USDA. By 2007, African-American farmers numbered about one in 70, together owning only 4.2 million acres.
Over the years, studies by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (CRC), as well as by the USDA itself, have shown that the USDA actively discriminated against Black farmers, earning it the nickname ‘the last plantation.’ A 1964 CRC study showed that the agency unjustly denied African-American farmers loans, disaster aid, and representation on agricultural committees. But organizations like the National Black Farmers Association, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, the Land Loss Prevention Project, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives have been challenging racism in agricultural policy through legal action. In 1997-98, African-American farmers filed class-action lawsuits against the USDA for unjustly denying them loans. The lawsuits were consolidated into one case, Pigford v. Glickman, which was settled in 1999. But due to delays in filing claims, nearly 60,000 farmers and their heirs were left out of this settlement. In November 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Claims Settlement Act (known as Pigford II) to compensate Black farmers who were left out of the first settlement. President Obama signed the bill a month later, making $1.25 billion available for claimants in the form of cash payments and loan forgiveness, though the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association has filed an appeal because Pigford II provides smaller payments and places limits on claimants’ future legal options.
Bell Hooks wrote, “Collective black self-recovery takes place when we begin to renew our relationship to the earth, when we remember the way of our ancestors… Living in modern society, without a sense of history, it has been easy for folks to forget that black people were first and foremost a people of the land, farmers.”
Some who are still farmers are carrying on the fight for economic and civil rights for land-based African-American people, a fight which dates back to the days of slavery. Probably the most impressive contemporary example of such organizing has been the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. An outgrowth of the civil rights movement, it formed in 1967 when 22 cooperatives met at Atlanta University. The federation has used collective action ever since to support Black and other small farmers and rural communities. Today, their members include over 100 coops in 16 states across the South.
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The Stakes Have Never Been Higher.
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A fast-growing movement is African-Americans reclaiming their connection to their urban land and their food, as part of food justice and food sovereignty movements. People’s Grocery and Mo’ Better Food in Oakland, Growing Power, Rooted in Community, Detroit Black community Food Security Network, and many others are organizing with farmers and connecting African-American growers and consumers. Many of these, such as the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, are working forcommunities of color to have democratic control over their own food systems. Their work includes youth programs and urban gardening in areas where access to healthy, affordable food is limited, as is the case in many low-income and people of color neighborhoods.
These groups are also raising awareness of the ways that African-American communities, and communities of color in general, have been sidelined within the food movement itself. Inclusion and participation of people of color has come slowly and late. Often, African-American neighborhoods are targeted as ‘intervention’ areas by outside organizations that - though well-meaning - are neither led by nor accountable to the community and its most urgent needs and goals. The prevailing white culture of the food movement as a whole creates barriers: the typical image of farmers presented often reflects a white archetype and the types of food solutions presented are not always culturally relevant or practical.
A critical element of many African-American groups’ work thus involves nation-wide education and organizing on structural racism as it impacts health, farming, food, and land. Among other elements, these organizations are committed to knocking down barriers to food production and food access. Some have joined the world-wide movement for food sovereignty, in their own communities and through the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, so that citizen control over food and agriculture can exist across global economic systems.
Ultimately, we all eat, and we are all implicated. Achieving racial justice in the food system is not the sole burden of African-Americans organizing but will take multiracial alliances of people raising awareness of systemic disparities, and working together to end them.
1. Hooks, Bell. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, Cambridge: South End Press, 1993