The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March, hinged eligibility for loan forgiveness on the basis of one characteristic: race. It said minority farmers are automatically entitled to a payment of 120 percent of their farm loans; white farmers are excluded, no matter how dire their circumstances. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proclaimed that the law addresses “systemic discrimination.” In other words, the Department of Agriculture believes that the way to end discrimination is to mandate more of it.
Last week a federal judge in Florida, considering a legal challenge to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan brought by farmer Scott Wynn, issued a preliminary injunction to halt the loan forgiveness program, citing serious constitutional concerns.
The reality is that farming is hard work for almost anyone, regardless of race. Wynn, who grows sweet potatoes and corn and raises cattle on his land in northern Florida, carries some $300,000 in federal loan debt for his small farm. He suffered losses because of the pandemic and was eager to apply for support under the loan forgiveness program — until he learned he would be ineligible because of his race.
Represented at no charge by Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), he filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the USDA’s program as discriminatory. He couldn’t see how the federal government could openly discriminate against individuals based on race.
The court’s decision in Wynn’s case recognizes that the program violates the constitutional principle of equality under the law. The judge made it clear that Wynn is likely to succeed on the merits of his claim that race-based loan forgiveness is blatantly discriminatory.
The Farm Loan Forgiveness Program is “untethered to an attempt to remedy any specific instance of past discrimination,” the court noted. On the contrary, while a white farmer is ineligible, a minority farmer “who applied for and received the only farm loan he or she ever sought on terms equivalent or even better than those given to other farmers is entitled to up to 120 percent debt relief.”
That gets it exactly right: equality before the law is a bedrock American principle. It requires the government to treat people as individuals, rather than as members of racial groups. For example, the government can forgive loans based on a farmer’s individual circumstances, such as economic losses he personally suffered during the pandemic. Whether such a program is a good policy is a matter of debate, but it would not threaten a farmer’s right to equal justice under the law.
Although the USDA’s treatment of individuals as members of their racial groups affects thousands of farmers, its impact on the law may be even more expansive than that. We’ve seen similar programs in other contexts as well. For years, Hartford, Conn., magnet schools were governed by a racial quota that prohibited students from enrolling in a school suited for their educational needs if their doing so would disturb the mandated racial balance. That held until clients of PLF — parents of Black and Hispanic students stuck on waiting lists to schools with empty seats — stepped in to change the status quo. The context is different, but the lesson is the same: If the government wants to stop discrimination on the basis of race, it should stop discriminating on the basis of race.
The civil rights movement of the last century put a well-deserved end to government policy that treated people differently based on the color of their skin. That malignant idea is no less pernicious when it is wrapped in soothing rhetoric of equity and social justice.
It’s time to restore farmers’ equal treatment by the government and do away with these discriminatory programs before they do further harm to the principle of equality before the law.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on June 28, 2021.