The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package included several provisions that discriminated against people based on race, including one that provided forgiveness of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to “socially disadvantaged” farmers.
In late April, Republican Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller sued the Biden administration, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it excluded farmers from the loan forgiveness program based on race.
“The lawsuit says the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress last month includes provisions for the forgiveness of loans to ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmers or ranchers of up to 120% of the value of the loan,” Courthouse News Service reported at the time. “It claims other federal laws limit help for white farmers and ranchers, including the Agriculture Department being required to give preference to grant applications filed by ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmers or ranchers.”
A week later, a Wisconsin dairy farmer with two prosthetic legs also sued the Biden administration, writing:
In March 2021, the United States retreated from the principle of equality under the law by enacting a race-based loan-forgiveness program in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). Among other things, ARPA provides billions of dollars of debt relief to “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. The phrase “socially disadvantaged” includes explicit racial classifications: to be eligible for ARPA’s debt relief, farmers and ranchers must be Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan native, Hispanic or Latino, or Asian American or Pacific Islander. Other farmers—white farmers, for example—are ineligible.
The lawsuit eventually included 12 farmers from nine states.
NBC News reported on Friday that a federal judge in Wisconsin ordered a temporary halt to the $4 billion program, ruling that the white farmers who filed lawsuits “are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim.”
NBC, of course, wrote the story from the perspective that the Biden administration program was “aimed at addressing longstanding inequities for farmers of color.”
Judge William Griesbach ruled that the USDA’s “use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law.”
Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the USDA, told NBC: “We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers. When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post that the relief program was designed to help minority farmers.
“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” Vilsack told the outlet.
As Judge Griesbach pointed out, however, the program ignores the actual financial circumstances of applicants, as many white farmers also struggled during the pandemic, which is the basis for the forgiveness program.
“Aside from a summary of statistical disparities, defendants have no evidence of intentional discrimination by the USDA in the implementation of the recent agriculture subsidies and pandemic relief efforts,” Griesbach wrote, noting that the policy was “a loan-forgiveness program purportedly intended to provide economic relief to disadvantaged individuals without actually considering the financial circumstances of the applicant.”
“Congress can implement race-neutral programs to help farmers and ranchers in need of financial assistance, such as requiring individual determinations of disadvantaged status or giving priority to loans of farmers and ranchers that were left out of the previous pandemic relief funding,” Griesbach added. “But it cannot discriminate on the basis of race.”
Griesbach’s ruling follows a similar decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which late last month overturned another provision in Biden’s COVID relief bill that discriminated against restaurant owners based on race and gender.