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How the Government Aided and Abetted the Theft of Black-Owned Farmland

The office of civil rights at the Agriculture Department is located on the third floor of a building named after a white supremacist. The Jamie Whitten Building, named in 1994, honors a member of Congress who started his career by eliminating a federal agency because its studies encouraged “racial intermingling” and ended it by referring to Mike Espy, a Black member of Congress and future secretary of agriculture, as “boy.” Whitten’s prejudices were reflected in the policies he supported: floods of cash for wealthy white farmers and next to nothing for Black farmers.

The representative from Mississippi never worked for USDA, but as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture for over four decades, he exercised so much control over the department’s budget that he became known as the “Permanent Secretary of Agriculture.” 

In a “typical year” in the 1960s, writes historian James Cobb in The Most Southern Place on Earth, Whitten secured $23.5 million for wealthy farmers who made up 0.3 percent of his district—and just $4 million in food stamps for the 59 percent of his district that lived below the poverty line. He once explained to Senator George McGovern that if “hunger was not a problem, [n-word]s won’t work.”

While Whitten was less abashed in his racism than many of his fellow lawmakers, they were no less committed to defending rich white farmers. From the start of Whitten’s political career to the present, lawmakers in both parties have set their differences aside to send the exceeding majority of federal funds to commercial farmers, almost all of them white men. 

Black farmers not only lost out on these massive subsidies—they have been effectively disenfranchised within the modern agricultural system. Under conditions of savage oppression, Black families emerged in the early 1900s with almost 20 million acres of farmland and “the largest amount of property they would ever own within the United States,” according to the historian Manning Marable. Since then, they have lost roughly 90 percent of that acreage.

Despite the scale of this deliberate, state-sanctioned dispossession, no one has estimated how much Black families lost. For the first time, in a forthcoming paper to be published in the American Economic Association’s Papers and Proceedings journal, our team conducted a comprehensive analysis of historical data from 1920 to 1997 and found that the lost wealth and income from the land totals about $326 billion—roughly the size of Hong Kong’s annual gross domestic product. This enormous loss not only cost the families who saw their land and dreams taken from them, but destroyed a rural Black middle class that had, by sheer will, emerged in the aftermath of slavery. Since family wealth is iterative—growing slowly at first, adding to itself, and accumulating and expanding over time—this blow to a nascent Black middle class has reverberated down the generations. 

Read entire article at The New Republic