As if their work in sales and as a railroad engineer, along with raising a young child, weren’t enough, Katie and James Dunlap are also farmers.
James, a lifelong and fifth-generation farmer, grew up in California and moved to Oregon in 2007 to help run his family’s ranch. In addition to the family-owned farm, James and Katie raise cattle and hay on land they rent from his parents. Along the way, they took out two farm loans to buy cattle and equipment, and because farming has a very low profit margin, James uses his railroad income to make loan payments.
When the COVID pandemic impacted his seasonal workers and his bottom line, James, like millions of other Americans, turned to federal pandemic relief programs for help. One program, in particular, is included in Congress’ recent COVID-19 legislation, offering farm loan forgiveness to farmers suffering pandemic-related economic hardship.
But the Dunlaps were stunned to learn that he’s ineligible for the program because he’s white.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides loan forgiveness up to 120% of USDA loan amounts only for minority farmers and ranchers. That is, government is using racial classifications to decide who deserves access to government benefits.
The blanket exclusion of white farmers from debt relief purportedly aims to address past discrimination against minority farmers and ranchers by the USDA. These historical wrongs have been previously addressed through administrative and class action settlements. Now, government is trying to combat racial discrimination by mandating more of it.
Loan forgiveness program or not, the Dunlaps simply want equal treatment among all farmers. Instead of a level playing field, they’re forced to farm at a government-sanctioned competitive disadvantage based on something as immutable as skin color.
Such racial classifications, however, violate the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said government cannot do this except in very narrow cases of past discrimination.
The Dunlaps fought back with a federal lawsuit challenging the American Rescue Plan’s unlawful race-based farm loan provision.
On September 7, 2022, they voluntarily dismissed their case after Congress repealed the race-based program and replaced it with a race-neutral debt relief policy as part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.