The Dead End of “Anti-Racist Discrimination”

What a failed racial equity program tells us about the pitfalls of race targeting.

Glenn Morris harvests corn on October 11, 2021, in Princeton, Indiana. Morris is one of two full-time black farmers in Lyles Station, a region of Indiana once dominated by black farmers. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In 2021, the Biden administration approved a $10.4 billion COVID-19 relief package for American farmers, a group that had been hit hard by snarled supply chains and plummeting crop and livestock prices. But as part of the administration’s commitment to racial equity, nearly half of the funding was reserved exclusively for debt relief for “socially disadvantaged” farmers, or those belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice.

Though federal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers had been available since the 1990s, it had often been scant or difficult to access. In the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020, a group of Democratic senators renewed the call to rectify “historical discrimination and disparities in the agriculture sector.” Black farmers in particular, advocates noted, had suffered past abuses such as Jim Crow–era land theft and the denial of Department of Agriculture loans. “For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement on the inclusion of the race-targeted portion of the farm aid.

The measure was applauded by progressives. “It’s reparations, but it’s more than that. It is historic,” one nonprofit director said. The historic moment, however, quickly turned into a legal quagmire. In the wake of the legislation, white farmers in several states who were ineligible for debt relief sued the federal government on the grounds that their exclusion from the program constituted racial discrimination, some with the backing of right-wing groups like Stephen Miller’s America First Legal. A few months into the court challenges, a federal judge halted the program’s rollout. The following year, updated legislation removed the controversial race-based criteria, expanding eligibility for debt relief to white farmers (who make up over 95 percent of farmers in the United States), but also reduced the available funding, watering down the aid significantly.

Three years later, it’s clear that the program has succeeded in only one respect: uniting black and white farmers in a shared antipathy for the president.

While the initial race-based restrictions on the program predictably infuriated struggling white farmers, the botched rollout in turn alienated black farmers who had been expecting debt relief only to find that none would be coming. “They gave us their word. We signed a contract and sent it back in and then they repealed the whole measure. I see it as a broken promise,” John Boyd Jr, the president of National Black Farmers Association, said in 2022. He and three other black farmers went on to file their own class-action lawsuit against the Biden administration for shuttering the program. According to a story this month in the New York Times, other black farmers whose promised aid never materialized are now planning on punishing Joe Biden in November. “I think we did better under President Trump,” one such farmer in Georgia told the paper.

The failure of the program — arguably a model of anti-racist policymaking — and the political fallout from the legal battles is instructive. No doubt the impetus to offer debt relief to black farmers sprang from a genuine desire to right past wrongs. But the theory of “anti-racist discrimination” that informed the policy decision resulted in total disaster.

Racial justice advocates have often insisted that race-targeted aid — the Biden administration’s chosen form of redress in this instance — is the only way of ensuring racial equality in the present. In his bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist, guru Ibram X. Kendi famously wrote, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” As he goes on to argue, policies that are race-neutral or universal are not only insufficient but even harmful because they don’t explicitly account for accumulated past discrimination. While Kendi’s star has dimmed somewhat following a recent public scandal concerning his management of a Boston University research center, this framework of anti-racist discrimination still permeates liberal policy circles in the form of enthusiasm for race-targeted measures such as reparations for slavery, basic income programs reserved for black women, and home-buying grants only for black and Latino families.

But as the discord over the Biden administration’s race-targeted farm aid shows, this particular vision of justice not only generates division and resentment but also serves to obscure — and even exonerate — the broader economic system that has pushed an ever-increasing number of people of all races into precarity over the last four decades.

For instance, in the case of farming debt, legislators’ attempt to address historical discrimination through race-based restrictions ultimately ended up overshadowing conditions of hardship widely shared by independent farmers of all races. Since the 1980s, corporations have aggressively expanded into agriculture, which has resulted in a few giant agribusinesses holding near-monopolies on soybeans, corn, and livestock while thousands of small farms have been pushed into financial ruin.

In the years before COVID-19, severe weather and ongoing trade disputes with Mexico and China had further exacerbated this already dire environment, and a record number of family farms filed for bankruptcy in 2019. “The nation lost more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018; 12,000 of those between 2017 and 2018 alone,” Time magazine noted. “Farm debt, at $416 billion, is at an all-time high.” According to the National Rural Health Association, today the suicide rate for farmers is currently 3.5 times greater than it is for other similar occupations.

In this context of economic scarcity and sustained insecurity, policies designed to exclude one group or another, based on characteristics no person can choose or change, are guaranteed to breed resentment.

Avoiding this sort of political catastrophe in the future requires rejecting two animating theories of liberal governance that continue to inform progressive policy making. First, we have to reject the zero-sum theory that past discrimination can only be redressed by current discrimination — even if that discrimination is supposedly anti-racist. And, second, we have to reject the “disparitarian” logic that seeks only to ensure that certain racial groups aren’t disproportionately subject to economic hardship, as opposed to seeking to eliminate that hardship itself.

Our conception of the common good should not be determined simply by whether black farmers as a group are compensated for past discrimination, but instead by whether all farmers are able to live decent dignified lives. That means developing universal programs that are large enough to be felt by all those affected and bold enough to foster an egalitarian economic order. Instead of supporting race-targeted policies that inevitably stir up animosity between black and white farmers, the Left ought to offer policy solutions that seek to curtail the power of the major agribusinesses and redistribute the massive wealth they have accumulated downward to struggling rural regions.

Pitting independent farmers against each other under the guise of “racial equity” plays directly into the hands of the Right. But a program of breaking up agricultural monopolies, taxing big agribusiness conglomerates, and using the proceeds to benefit black and white farmers alike is one that might not only slow the trend of farmers turning to Donald Trump for answers but also help forge a new rural political coalition to advance an economically progressive agenda.