Citing racial discrimination, a federal judge in Florida ruled Thursday against a loan forgiveness program created for minority farmers under President Joe Biden‘s American Rescue Plan.
In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard wrote Congress must “do away with governmentally imposed discrimination based on race,” adding that lawmakers “moved with great speed to address the history of discrimination but did not move with great care.”
Tuesday’s ruling marks a blow to Black and other minority farmers, who stood to collect an estimated $4 billion in relief as well as training and education opportunities under the program.
But the ruling also stands as a legal victory for Scott Wynn of Jennings, Florida.
Wynn, a White farmer, filed a lawsuit in May against the program, arguing its focus on race was discriminatory in and of itself.
Moreover, Wynn further contended that he was no less impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic than other farmers. Under the program, only Black, Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander farmers qualified for relief.
Howard, presiding in the Middle District Court of Florida, made note of the discrepancy in the ruling.
“Regardless of farm size, an SDFR (socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher) receives up to 120% debt relief,” Howard noted. And regardless of whether an SDFR is having the most profitable year ever and not remotely in danger of foreclosure, that SDFR receives up to 120% debt relief.”
“Yet a small White farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief. Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief provided by the government,” Howard added.
Notably, Tuesday’s ruling will allow the Department of Agriculture to move forward planning for the program while it works to make it “constitutionally permissible.”
The Department of Agriculture announced the loan payment plan in May to aid “socially disadvantaged farmers.”
For much of the history of the USDA, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have faced discrimination — sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies — that have prevented them from achieving as much as their counterparts who do not face these documented acts of discrimination,” the agency said when the program was announced.
In all, the American Rescue Plan totaled $1.9 trillion, making it the largest in U.S. history.