Excerpted From: Nicholas E. Armstrong, Sweat Equity: A Contemporary Analysis of Land Dispossession of Black Farmers in the Southern United States, 73 Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 408 (2024) (258 Footnotes) (Full Document Requested)

NicholasEArmstrongThere has been a sharp decrease in rural land ownership among BlackAmericans since the end of the Reconstruction Era. This land loss is largely attributed to systemic public and private sector discrimination, coupled with the U.S. Government's failure to administer economic justice on behalf of formerly enslavedBlackAmericans and their descendants. Even today, government agencies miss the mark, failing to eradicate systemic discrimination and institute repair for past harm suffered as a result of private prejudice and its impact on public policy.

This note will explore the sharp decrease in rural land ownership experienced by Black farmers due to land dispossession and involuntary land loss, outline the various methods in which Black communities faced land extraction, and explore how social discrimination crafted public policy to the farmers' disadvantage. At the turn of the twentieth century, recently emancipated AfricanAmericans owned from 12 to as much as 14 million acres of farmland. By the year 2000 however, nearly 90 percent of that land had been lost. Various factors contributed to this dispossession, including overt discrimination at the hands of federal agencies spanning several decades. Also contributing was the Great Migration, although it was not a cause.

Throughout the United States, there is little legislation to shield Black farmers from involuntary land loss, some of which is the result of systemic dispossession. In most cases, existing measures to aid these landowners have only assisted them in selling or auctioning off property. Adding insult to injury is the lack of access that many farmers and their families have to legal services to assist in estate planning, increasing their vulnerability to property loss. In the rural context, debt can be higher than the appraised value of the land, forcing the property owner or descendants of the record owner to sell or abandon the property altogether. Given the compounded effect of this vulnerability for more than a century, substantive policy to aid Black farmers appears to be the only viable solution to correct historic harm and provide redress. In 2021, the administration of U.S. President Joseph R. Biden unveiled the American Rescue Plan Act to provide economic relief and address the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Included in this economic package was debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers. The measure was met with opposition in the form of lawsuits filed against the United States Department of Agriculture on grounds that it had not been tailored to the needs of current farmers and unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race. Following the challenges, the Biden administration forwent an appeal of a judicial order blocking the relief for socially disadvantaged farmers.

Part I of this note examines the history of land dispossession affecting rural BlackAmerican farmers, including the violence and deception to which many were subjected; the emergence and weaponization of public policy changes against Black farmers during the New Deal Era; freezing out of subsidy programs by banks and government actors; and various legal measures that inhibit or burden property transfers from record owners to their descendants, such as heirs' property laws, partition sales, Torrens Acts (in states where they remain on the books), and property tax sales. This includes chronicling the ways in which the dispossession occurred and how it was legally enabled through public policy during the New Deal Era. Also included is the failure of the U.S. Government to enforce anti-discrimination laws in localities throughout the South--providing little recourse to those who found themselves victims of racist agents in local branches of government program offices. This section will end by detailing the methods aimed at redress on a federal level, including Poole v. Williams, which was brought forth in the years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Next, Part II will outline some of the most prevalent ways in which Black farmers face land dispossession. Part III will discuss the landmark Pigford cases beginning in 1999, along with the proposed Justice for Black Farmers Act and debt relief included in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Part IV of this note features my own proposals and recommendations for future policy initiatives. This includes arguing that historic repair for racialized injustices should not have been included in economic stimulus relief packages or other government initiatives intended to provide relief to the entirety of the American population. Furthermore, I argue that legislative solutions should be directed by the federal government, but enforced at a local level where discrimination in practice has historically occurred. Subsequently, the note. Subsequently, the note concludes, summarizing the issues and solutions outlined and presenting a call to action for the United States to finally pursue justice on behalf of its Black farmers.

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In order to effectively remedy the harm suffered by BlackAmerican farmers from the Reconstruction Era to the present-day, the federal government must play a large role in advocating on their behalf. There must be an effort to actively create and enforce policies that prevent discrimination from occurring locally. Policy measures should offer solutions that are narrowly tailored to provide redress to the harmed parties. Such efforts would ensure that any solutions remain foolproof against claims of unfairness. This is not to say that the government is not within its right to create broad-sweeping categories for aiding socially disadvantaged persons; this, however, should be done through other initiatives. Efforts made to date have failed to do this. As indicated in the History section of this note, the discrimination suffered by Black farmers in the United States has a long trajectory and epitomizes systemic injustice. The intergenerational experiences of Black farmers with involuntary land loss and land dispossession illustrate the ability of social prejudice to repeatedly influence and weaponize public policy against Black farmers. Additionally, the History section emphasizes that this is an American issue, as it can be traced directly from the struggles that Black farmers faced following emancipation into the modern era. In closing, history and available data justify the need for redress on behalf of Black farmers. If the United States ever finds the will to act, it has a duty to remedy the harm suffered, pay the debts owed, and exercise justice on behalf of its Black farmers.

Nicholas E. Armstrong is a 2023 graduate of Washington University School of Law.