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Head of Black farmers association wants apology from Graham, accountability from Vilsack

The head of the National Association of Black Farmers is calling on Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to apologize for referring to relief money from the American Rescue Plan as “reparations” and separately asking new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to prove himself to Black farmers for letting them down when he had the same role during the Obama administration. 

John Boyd, who grows soybeans in southern Virginia, told the PBS NewsHour he is optimistic about the $5 billion in relief targeted for farmers of color. Boyd, who helped found the National Association of Black Farmers in 1995, detailed his own experiences with discrimination, including seeing his loan application torn up and being spat upon by a federal loan officer. 

Most of the $5 billion aims to erase debt for farmers of color. 

But as that money holds promise, Boyd expressed deep concerns about high-profile leaders from each political party.

Lindsey Graham should apologize

“I find his comments very offensive and I call on him to apologize,” Boyd said when asked about recent remarks by Graham, who referred to the aid for farmers of color in the recent relief bill as “reparations,” invoking the phrase as a derogatory term, which other conservatives have done when opposing such aid in recent years. 

Graham told Fox News on Tuesday that he felt the targeted relief was unfair to white farmers and  did not belong in a COVID response bill.  

“If you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120 percent of your loan … if you’re African American (or) some other minority,” Graham said. “But if you’re [a] white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations.”

Boyd, who said he has long worked with Graham, was irate.

“He knew about discrimination and instead of offering to help, he used his megaphone to hurt and divide Black farmers in this country,” Boyd told the NewsHour.  He called Graham’s remarks “appalling.”

WATCH: How the economic relief law narrows the equity gap for farmers of color

“I think that he should apologize to Black farmers and Black people in this country for continuing to divide and for not bringing this country together,” he said.

When asked for a response, Taylor Reidy, a spokesperson for Graham, replied, “Senator Graham has made his views on this issue crystal clear. Nothing more to add.”  

Reidy pointed out that a Democrat — Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — also referred to  the relief as “reparations.”

Some Black farmers don’t trust Vilsack

Boyd also expressed concern about Tom Vilsack, who is reprising his role as head of the Department of Agriculture, after leading the agency for eight years under President Barack Obama. 

Boyd says he personally asked President Joe Biden, before he took office, to bring “new blood” to the USDA.

“So I was a bit disappointed that Secretary Vilsack is coming back for a second tenure,” Boyd told the NewsHour.

Vilsack has had rocky relations with some in the Black community for over a decade. He forced a Black woman to resign from her job in Georgia after past remarks of hers appeared on a conservative website. Vilsack later apologized and admitted the remarks were taken out of context and misunderstood. Some Black farmers also believe he was willfully blind to ongoing discrimination within his agency, doing less than he could to advance and provide settlement money to farmers affected.  

Since his nomination, Vilsack has spent time holding listening sessions with groups of Black farmers and ranchers and pledging to “root out inequities.”

Boyd is watching.

“I’m urging him, that he can’t be the same Agriculture secretary that he was under the Obama Administration … and he’s going to have to take a much more aggressive approach to look at the culture of discrimination,” Boyd said.

Not mincing words, the Virginia farmer said he’s pushing for staff changes inside the agency.  

“Nobody’s been fired for the act of discriminating against Black farmers. And some heads need to roll so Black farmers can rebuild our trust in the USDA.”

In a statement late Wednesday, the USDA said it “is committed to addressing and rooting out systemic discrimination from the inside out. USDA leaders endorsed the historic debt relief provisions for minority farmers in the American Rescue Plan from the beginning and support establishing a Racial Equity Commission at the Department to ensure a greater degree of accountability on many of the points Mr. Boyd raises.”

“Top leadership appointed and nominated to USDA in the first six weeks include the historic choice of the first African American woman to serve as Deputy Secretary, the appointment of the Department’s first Senior Advisor for Racial Equity in the Office of the Secretary, the nomination of the first Native American to serve as General Counsel, and new leadership in the Office of Civil Rights, among others,” it added.