Writer Nathan Rosenberg talks USDA's misleading claims on black farming in advance of Kirwan event on “Land Loss, Wealth Inequality & Reparations”

After graduating from law school in 2011, Nathan Rosenberg moved to the Mississippi Delta to work with farmers who wanted to sell their food locally. He got connected to black grower cooperatives and learned about the history of African American farming in the South.

Rosenberg moved to New York in 2014, and that year the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report related to its 2012 Census of Agriculture, which is the federal government’s definitive head count of American farmers. USDA framed the census to suggest a 9 percent increase in black farming. Tom Vilsack, then the secretary of agriculture, used the data to say that he had righted the wrongs of USDA’s past. 

“This Administration heard President Obama’s call to uproot inequality, and we acted,” Vilsack wrote in a Medium post in 2016.

But that narrative didn’t match what Rosenberg had witnessed in Mississippi. “It just completely conflicted with what everyone was telling me on the ground, what I saw on the ground, and all the available evidence,” Rosenberg said recently by phone. 

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He began looking at the data more carefully, and then, alongside writer Bryce Stucki, he worked to document the way USDA had distorted data to depict a fictional renaissance in black farming while covering up years of discrimination. In June, after interviewing more than 150 people (including Vilsack) and poring over FOIA documents, Rosenberg and Stucki published their findings in The New Food Economy. The revelations are staggering. 

“Black farmers lost around 90 percent of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997, while white farmers lost only about 2 percent over the same period,” the authors write. Elsewhere, they note that between 2001 and 2008, there were 14,000 outstanding cases of civil rights complaints at USDA, but only one finding of discrimination. One USDA employee is quoted as saying, “They routinely put the complaints in the corner and ignored them until the statute of limitations ran out.”  

“Every time we would learn new information, we were just continuously stunned by how bad things are at USDA. Even today, in 2019, the way USDA will treat black farmers is just outrageous,” Rosenberg said. “One of our sources within USDA civil rights office, who asked to remain anonymous, he told me that, ‘Every administration, someone new comes in and we say it can't get any worse. And then it does get worse.’”

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, Rosenberg and Stucki will join Darrick Hamilton, executive director of Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, and University of Massachusetts professor Dania Francis for a panel discussion on Land Loss, Wealth Inequality & Reparations, moderated by Ohio State’s Hasan Jeffries. 

To tell the story, Rosenberg and Stucki focused on five myths: USDA resolved a backlog of civil rights complaints from the Bush years; new civil rights complaints fell to record lows; USDA reduced funding disparities between black and white farmers; the number of black farmers increased; and the “Pigford” settlement closed a “painful chapter in our collective history.” (“Pigford” refers to a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by black farmers against USDA).

The problem with those myths is not just that they’re incorrect, Rosenberg said. It’s that the perpetuation of those myths makes it difficult to push politicians for change. “If it's conventional wisdom that things are improving for black farmers — and that's where the census data was so key, because it seems like an objective source — then [legislators] have black farmers coming to their office or calling their staffers and saying, ‘Look, things aren't getting better,’ and they’re just going to dismiss them as disgruntled, angry constituents who aren't going to be pleased regardless,” Rosenberg said. 

While the data Rosenberg and Stucki compiled was crucial to the New Food Economy story, the stories of the black farmers do much of the heavy lifting in the narrative. “Everything that we discovered and learned, whether it's through FOIA documents or data, black farmers had been saying for years,” Rosenberg said. “I don't think there's anything in our article that would be news to most black farmers, so we wanted this article to be shaped by what they were telling us.”

The land loss and wealth inequality panel at Kirwan also coincides with a new Atlantic cover story by Vann Newkirk, “The Great Land Robbery: The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms,” which features research from panelists Hamilton and Francis.

And all of these documented injustices lead to a hot-button issue in the increasingly active 2020 presidential campaign: reparations.

“It's incredibly relevant to that conversation, and not only whether or not you should have reparations, but how large they should be,” Rosenberg said. “Farmland was the single largest source of wealth for black families in the South, up and potentially through the civil rights era. The fact that this land was stolen, or these families were dispossessed of that wealth, has played a major role in perpetuating the black-white wealth gap in this country, and I think that's something that needs to be a part of the current political dialogue.”