Black farmers and other farmers of color on Wednesday filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming the recent repeal of a debt relief program that supported them amounts to a breach of contract by the government.
The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares to roll out a modified debt relief program, passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in August, which allocates relief in based on economic need rather than race.
The USDA offers operating and property loans to farmers through its Farm Service Agency. The agency previously said it would cancel loan debt held by farmers it describes as socially disadvantaged, in a bid to make up for decades of discriminatory lending practices that have helped them lose land.
The definition includes black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian farmers.
The white farmers alleged discrimination and blocked the program with legal action. It was later repealed by the IRA, which instead included a debt relief provision based solely on economic need, angering some groups of black farmers.
Four farmers of color in Virginia argue in the lawsuit, filed in the US Federal Court of Claims, that the repeal amounted to breaking a contract with farmers, some of whom made financial plans or bought new equipment or land awaiting relief.
The farmers are represented by Ben Crump, a prominent American civil rights lawyer known for his work representing the families of black Americans killed by police.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
About 14,000 farmers of color received letters from the USDA between May and September 2021 promising $2.4 billion in cumulative debt relief, according to previous Reuters reports.
Princess Williams, one of the four plaintiffs, told a news conference in Washington that she had signed and returned one of those letters and taken out new loans in hopes of getting the cancellation of its debt with the FSA.
“We haven’t received that money and now it puts us in a complete financial bind,” she said.