February 17, 2023
President Joe Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
Surely you agree with me that we live in perilous times with threats from Russia, domestic threats from balloons from China and other places, and threats to democracy here in our own country. While I think you are, by and large, handling those threats well, there is one threat that you, sir, are not handling well, and that is the prompt for this open letter to you.
You are mishandling the Black farmer issue. I am disappointed. I am bitterly disappointed and disillusioned with the manner in which you have handled the Black farmers of our land and their city cousins. Country cousins and city cousins are connected, know each other, and talk to each other.
We were very hopeful back in the day when your campaign looked to be going down the tubes, when Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina stepped up and endorsed you, and we saw the winds of your campaign change. We saw outstanding successes among the Democratic Party in Georgia for both you and Reverend Senator Raphael Warnock.
Then, Mr. President, we began to wince at what some of that change meant. We had fully engaged the campaigns of Senators Warren, Booker, Sanders, and Warnock, and we engaged with Mr. Mike Bloomberg. As the ticket of Biden/Harris won, we then engaged the agriculture transition team. Much to our surprise, the gentleman with whom we had been working on this team and your policies was not actually the person in charge. We realized that former Ag Secretary Thomas Vilsack was pulling strings from behind. We were advocating for changes within the USDA, for accountability and transparency, and for full debt relief for aggrieved Black farmers. Then, in one particular meeting we heard that what we wanted was "unconstitutional." One of your team members, an attorney, told us that. We were flabbergasted.
Then, we watched with much interest as a variety of people pressed you both publicly and privately not to appoint Tom Vilsack to another term as Secretary of USDA. Much had been written about the failures of his two terms under President Obama, and despite opposition from congressional folk and the NAACP leadership, the Justice for Black Farmers Group, and the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and others, you nominated him anyway. And then we observed the "love fest" at the senate confirmation hearing and I, for one, was nauseated and alarmed.
We were hopeful despite these things at the beginning of your presidency and now we are not so hopeful. We see where the winds of change have taken us. They have taken us down the road of "Big Ag," and because of that, Vilsack, who is owned by Big Ag, is your Secretary of Ag. We want to know if you indeed are also beholden to Big Ag or is it just Mr. Vilsack. We have our suspicions and we'd like for you to dissuade us of them. We see how Big Ag is getting the major source of funding from USDA. We also see that Vilsack's favored organizations are getting millions of dollars despite there being no open application process.
What did you miss from the messages of "don't appoint Vilsack?" Was it when you were making decisions about your cabinet? And what other voices did you ignore? What about his previous terms did you respect? What did you anticipate being different under your administration? Were you indebted to Tom Vilsack in some manner?
Surely you know because your team had done its research that he had an incredibly spotty history: a class action suit by Black state employees in Iowa, extreme favoritism of white, corporate Ag, and a racist, dismissive attitude toward socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Research about Vilsack has been published in numerous places under numerous names such as Lloyd Wright in the Washington Post, Rosenberg and Stucki in numerous publications where investigations are published, and even me here on this blog.
A painful political cartoon is out in public spaces. It is insulting to you. It shows you as Jim Crow Joe with Black voters in your right hand and Vilsack and Dr. Dwayne Goldmon, his equity advisor, as marionettes on the strings in your left hand. It is insulting and I cringed when I saw it, but the people with whom I work and respect say that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and have made in public in various social media.
Your appointee knows that we are displeased with him. You know that we are displeased with him. We have written both of you numerous letters. We met with him and members of his team several months back, but he did not listen to us. Instead he spent a few minutes filibustering as to his accomplishments. That is not why we called the meeting. In a follow up letter we told him so.
We believed that he slow-walked the process under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and by doing so, he allowed time for 12 or 13 class action suits by white farmers to be filed in various courts around the country. My own research into the USDA database shows that not only have they NOT been discriminated against, but that the were very successful at receiving subsidies, MFP, and CFAP funds as well as the counties within which their farms and ranches are located. This research was on the first 6 litigants. There was no need to go any further although the data is there.
Even though the language was modified under the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 to "distressed" borrowers, from the appearance of things, most of those funds have gone to white borrowers and to very few Black "distressed" borrowers. At last note, Vilsack has wiped out the debts of 11,000 borrowers to the tune of $800M. We know of less than 10 Black farmers who have been recipients of that relief. We have little hope that he will disburse the $2.2B for those have experienced discrimination. We understand that he is actually trying to change the ways the second set of funds is to be managed.
We have it on good evidence that Mr. Vilsack thinks that distributing millions to favored organizations for technical assistance and to 1890s have been good for Black farmers. He is misguided and his assertions are insulting. Until Black farmers receive relief for the USDA's blatant malfeasance and discrimination toward them, injustice and injury will continue to live on.
As you may recall, it was Black farmers who reluctantly formed the Class Action Suit, Pigford v. Glickman. Only 4.8% of those successful litigants received debt cancellation. Those Black farmers have continued to vote for Democratic presidents only to see their hopes for remedies to USDA's discrimination dashed on the shores of Washington DC. I personally participated in a mediation hearing before USDA and DOJ in 1997 and learned first hand how the federal government treats Black farmers. It was not a pretty sight.
We were hoping to see things different this time. While Senator Warren's policy for Black farmers was thorough and well publicized, we had to hunt via the internet for your policy. Your policy was less than satisfactory by comparison.
Bottom line, Mr. President, we gave you the White House. You gave us Tom Vilsack.
His racist policies continue. Sadly, you are now implicated in the process. His efforts are only putting lipstick on a pig. We know it's still a pig.
The Democratic Party did well in the midterms. Congratulations on that. We fear that similar results may not be in the cards for the upcoming general elections. We are suspicious but that your reelection may indeed be hanging on by a thread.
City and country cousins talk to each other. They know how your secretary continues to favor unchecked, corporate Ag to the neglect of Black farmers of the land.
There is time to turn that around, but there is not much time. The clock is ticking.
We are hoping, praying, and demonstrating for a better day. We hope you will meet us in those spaces of hope, prayer, and conversation.
Waymon R. Hinson, Ph.D.
Representation, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association
Representative, Justice for Black Farmers Group
Representative, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees