Black farming and civil rights groups are giving President-elect Joe Biden an earful about his decision to bring former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack back to head up the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a job he held for eight years under former President Barack Obama. According to Politico, leaders of farming and civil rights organizations say Vilsack’s inconsistent record on civil rights have disqualified him for the role, which is charged with overseeing programs supporting the nation’s farmers, providing crucial food assistance programs, and managing the agency’s $146 billion budget. The outlet writes that the decision has “enraged many farmers of color.”
“Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period,” Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers told Politico. IBF is a coalition of Black growers and producers from Southern states that works to raise awareness on the issues Black farmers face. “When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that. It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.”
Vilsack’s selection was announced this week, after Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge and high profile members of the Congressional Black Caucus spent weeks publicly lobbying for Fudge to be the first Black woman to head the USDA. Fudge leads the House Agriculture Committee and reportedly wanted to shift the focus of the department from farming to addressing hunger, including in non-rural areas. While the USDA is most associated with its work supporting farmers, the agency has a substantial impact in providing assistance to millions of Americans dealing with food insecurity, including through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school meals.
Some of the criticism against Vilsack is rooted in the USDA’s history. As Politico notes, it has historically been led by white men, and the agency has actively contributed to massive land loss sustained by Black farmers.
Vilsack’s supporters suggest that the former USDA secretary brings a lot of “deep knowledge” at a crucial time. From Politico:
Biden chose Vilsack because he wanted someone at USDA with deep knowledge of the department’s operations and who can immediately address the problems facing rural communities, farmers and low-income families in need of food assistance during the pandemic, according to a person familiar with Biden’s thinking. The person also pointed to Vilsack’s work at USDA establishing the department’s first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee and creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson, on a previously scheduled call with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, warned Biden and his transition team that the Vilsack pick may work against Democrats in the crucial Georgia Senate races. More from Politico:
Black voters, and particularly rural Black voters, there have not forgotten that Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia and a well-respected civil rights leader, was wrongfully forced out of her job under Vilsack’s leadership after a deceptively edited video featured on Breitbart falsely suggested she was racist.
...Biden listened to the concerns, quietly taking notes throughout the roughly 90-min Zoom meeting, but when Johnson specifically suggested the president-elect owed Sherrod a call to discuss selecting Vilsack, Biden looked up and appeared to be taken aback, the source said, perhaps suggesting the former vice president began to understand just how upset the Black community remains about the episode a decade later.
The USDA is best known for its role in supporting the nation’s farmers, though that protection has rarely applied to Black farmers in the same way it has to white ones. As Mother Jones reports, in the 1910s, approximately 200,000 Black farmers owned 20 million acres of land, with most of that farmland being in the South. Only 2 percent of that number remains, the result of systemic barriers and outright land theft, aided and abetted by federal agencies.
This history has prompted a Senate bill, the Justice for Black Farmers act, that aims to redress this massive land loss and support Black farmers, including devoting an $8 billion fund within the USDA that would buy farmland and grant it to new and existing farmers.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told Politico he was disappointed about Vilsack’s nomination, particularly after he had “spent months working with Biden’s campaign and his transition team,” the outlet writes. Boyd said he has contacted Vilsack to learn how he plans to reach out to and support Black and non-white farmers, including improving access to land and credit.
“I am hopeful he comes with a different attitude for the next four years than he had his first eight years he was at USDA and solves the issues facing Black, other minorities and small farmers,” said Boyd. “There has to be some real initiative and focus that has to come from him. The agency is not going to do anything if it is not coming from him.”