ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For generations, the US government provided financial assistance to farmers as long as those farmers were white. Black, Latino and Indigenous farmers have been excluded from loans and other government programs, and this discrimination has consistently caused people of color to quit the business. The coronavirus relief bill that the House approved today includes $ 5 billion to address this issue, and Congressman David Scott, from Georgia, joins us in talking about it. He is a Democrat and chairman of the House agriculture committee.
President Scott, good to have you here.
DAVID SCOTT: Oh, it’s great to be with you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: We’re talking about over a century of discrimination and exclusion. In 2004, we spoke to a black farmer in Alabama named Lukata Mjumbe. He’s a former director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and here’s what he told us.
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LUKATA MJUMBE: I never met a farmer in all of the different southern states of the United States that I worked – a black farmer who had not been discriminated against by the USDA.
SHAPIRO: And the number of black farmers in America has dropped from nearly a million a century ago to less than 50,000 today. So how much can this measure really do?
SCOTT: Let me just say this is just a down payment on what we’re going to do to tackle past discrimination, current discrimination against black farmers. People need to understand that this is not preferential treatment. It is not a repair. This is business. These are long overdue cases. No one has paid the costs of farming and farming like African Americans. We were the pioneers of agriculture – in slavery under the whiplash. I was born on a farm in Aynor, SC – my grandfather’s – where I picked cotton, cultivated tobacco, milked cows, plowed the field – all of it. My grandfather had this farm in the 1930s. And back then 18.9% of all farms in the South were owned by black farmers. Do you know what it is today? – less than 2%.
SHAPIRO: And so you call it a down payment. What exactly do you hope you can do with that $ 5 billion down payment?
SCOTT: It’s to open our eyes to what else we need to do. When I say down payment, it’s the down payment on what we’re going to do and deliver on March 25, when I invite our black farmers for the very first time to have a hearing in Congress.
SHAPIRO: So if we could talk about some of the specific provisions – there’s $ 4 billion here for minority farmer debt relief, another $ 1 billion for aid, which includes inheritance issues. and property, and also a racial equity commission to eradicate discrimination in the country. United States Department of Agriculture. Do you think discrimination is still rampant in the USDA? There has certainly been evidence of this in the past. Is it there in the present?
SCOTT: I have no idea. That’s what I’m trying to tell you that I’ve got the hearing – to find out. You can’t go in one direction to solve a problem unless you get the proper intelligence, unless we bring Vilsack.
SHAPIRO: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, yes.
SCOTT: Secretary of Agriculture – that’s why I try to move in an orderly fashion.
SHAPIRO: Now, as you know, Republicans who oppose it have said, number one, it’s not directly related to COVID relief. And second, they argue that it is unconstitutional to distribute money on the basis of race. How do you respond to that?
SCOTT: Because we’re righting a huge wrong – where were the Republicans screaming when the racial discrimination was put (ph)? Yes, it is constitutional. We founded constitutionality on the basic principle stated by Jefferson – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. This was designed to correct the discrimination against African Americans.
SHAPIRO: Congressman David Scott from Georgia is a Democrat and chair of the House Agriculture Committee.
Thanks for speaking with us today.
SCOTT: Thanks, Ari, for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.