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Black farmers have faced decades of discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has denied them loans and other aid. A discrimination lawsuit promised vital debt relief, but many didn't get it. Now, despite some partisan resistance, Black farmers and other disadvantaged groups are getting billions in debt relief and help. Seth Bodine of member station KOSU reports.
SETH BODINE, BYLINE: The newest stimulus bill includes $4 billion in debt relief and an additional billion for assistance that Black farmers have been waiting on for decades. But it didn't come easy. Forty-nine senators voted to strip or reduce the aid. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was at the forefront of that effort.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: As reparations - what has that got to do with COVID?
BODINE: But for John Boyd Jr., who heads the National Black Farmers Association, it makes perfect sense. He says Black farmers are facing extinction, and the pandemic has made the situation worse.
JOHN BOYD JR: When animals are facing extinction, Congress puts laws in place until their numbers come back up. But here we all have been saying the same thing for - I know I have - for the past 30-some-odd years, and Congress has been slow to act.
BODINE: In the 1990s, many Black farmers were promised debt relief. That's part of a billion-dollar settlement with the USDA. But many didn't get that money. Willard Tillman heads the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project. He says while the lawsuit paid out money to some farmers, no internal changes were made to root out racism.
WILLARD TILLMAN: I do not know where anybody was reprimanded for anything that they had done during that time.
BODINE: Drusilla James is a rancher in Wewoka, Okla. She says she tried to get assistance from the Farm Service Agency to clear her land. But when she went into the office, the answer would always be the same.
DRUSILLA JAMES: No. No assistance is available. None. Come back later, you know? And you go back later - you get the same response. Nope, nothing's available. Maybe in about three to six months, you know, maybe next year, you know? And you go over there so often, you already know the answer. You could only be told no so many times till you're really discouraged from doing anything except for what you can do by yourself.
BODINE: Drusilla isn't the only one having a hard time getting loans. Bristow, Okla., rancher Dray Williams tried countless times to get assistance before finally wrangling a small loan. He hopes the additional $1 billion in technical assistance in the relief bill makes it easier to access loans and other USDA programs. But ultimately, the change comes down to the local level.
DRAY WILLIAMS: You can make all the changes you want. But the employees, the person that's running that office, you know, you can't change them. You can't change their mentality.
BODINE: Farmer John Boyd Jr. remains optimistic and says the relief package is a good start, but he's calling on Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to do more.
BOYD: The first thing Secretary Vilsack needs to say is the United States Department of Agriculture is open for business for Black farmers and farmers of color too. Those words have to come out of his mouth if he's very sincere about doing this.
BODINE: Vilsack is setting up an equity commission at the USDA, and Boyd and others are calling him to address systemic racism in agriculture.
For NPR News, I'm Seth Bodine in Oklahoma City.
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