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Georgia Congressman Explains How The Relief Bill Will Aid Farmers Of Color

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For generations, the U.S. government has provided financial help to farmers as long as those farmers were white. Black, Latino and Indigenous farmers have been excluded from loans and other government programs, and that discrimination has steadily squeezed people of color out of the business. The coronavirus relief bill that the House approved today includes $5 billion to address that problem, and Congressman David Scott of Georgia joins us to talk about it. He's a Democrat and chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Chairman Scott, good to have you here.

DAVID SCOTT: Oh, it's great being with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We are talking about more than a century of discrimination and exclusion. Back in 2004, we talked to a Black farmer in Alabama named Lukata Mjumbe. He's former director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and here's what he told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LUKATA MJUMBE: I never met a farmer in all of the different states in the Southern United States that I worked in - a Black farmer that had not been discriminated against by USDA.

SHAPIRO: And the number of Black farmers in America has shrunk from almost a million a century ago to under 50,000 today. So how much can this measure really do?

SCOTT: Let me just say that this is just merely a down payment compared to what we are going to do to address the past discrimination, the current discrimination of Black farmers. Folks have got to understand this is no preferential treatment. This is no reparation. This is business. It is business that has been long overdue. Nobody has paid the dues for farming and agriculture like African American people. We were the pioneers in agriculture - in slavery under the lash of the whip. I was born on a farm in Aynor, S.C. - my grandfather's - where I picked the cotton, cropped the tobacco, milked the cows, plowed the field - all of that. My grandfather got that farm in the '30s. And back during that period, 18.9% of all the farms in the South were owned by Black farmers. You know what it is today? - less than 2%.

SHAPIRO: And so you call this a down payment. What specifically do you expect to be able to do with that down payment of $5 billion?

SCOTT: It's to open our eyes to what else we must do. When I say down payment, it's the down payment on what we are going to do and provide on March the 25, when I will be bringing in our Black farmers for the very first time to have a hearing before Congress.

SHAPIRO: So if we could talk about some of the specific provisions - there's $4 billion here for debt relief for minority farmers, another $1 billion for assistance, which includes inheritance and property issues, and also a racial equity commission to root out discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Do you think that discrimination is still endemic at USDA? There's certainly been evidence of it in the past. Is it there in the present?

SCOTT: I have no idea. That's what I'm trying to tell you I'm having the hearing - to find out. You can't move in a direction to solve a problem unless you get the proper intelligence, unless we bring in Vilsack.

SHAPIRO: The Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, yeah.

SCOTT: Agriculture secretary - so that's why I'm trying to move in an orderly fashion.

SHAPIRO: Now, as you know, Republicans who oppose this have said, first, it's not directly related to COVID relief. And second, they argue it's unconstitutional to hand out money based on race. How do you respond to that?

SCOTT: Because we are moving to correct a massive wrong - where were the cries from the Republicans when the racial discrimination was put (ph)? Yes, it is constitutional. We have based the constitutionality on the basic principle that Jefferson laid out - life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. This was designed to correct discrimination against African Americans.

SHAPIRO: Congressman David Scott of Georgia is a Democrat and chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

SCOTT: Thank you, Ari, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.