By: Mike Maharrey
A lot of people believe that the federal government is a friend to liberty because it protected African-Americans against discrimination in the 1960s. But research shows that this was the exception to the rule, at best. Centralized authority, including the federal government, has historically brutalized minority populations.
When it comes to civil rights, the conventional narrative goes like this: African Americans were enslaved and then suffered extreme discrimination until the federal government stepped in during the 1960s and passed the Civil Rights Acts to protect them.
This narrative paints centralized-government as the hero. And while the Civil Rights Acts did extend protections to black people and hastened the end of the Jim Crow era, this kind of federal action to protect minorities is actually an anomaly. More often than not, the U.S. federal government has enacted and enforced policies that have facilitated discrimination and worse.
To begin with, National power was the tool of slavers. From the moment the Constitution was ratified forward, southern slavers relied on federal power and centralized authority to maintain the legal framework for slavery. It also depended on federal power to enforce the fugitive slave clause, even as free northern states appealed to their state sovereignty to protect their black citizens. Up until the end of the War Between the States, federal power was vigorously applied for the benefit of slavers to preserve their institution and protect their ‘property.’
And after the war, federal power continued to benefit those who would discriminate on the basis of race – particularly when it came to land ownership.
A recent article in The Atlantic chronicles how federal agriculture policy enabled rich white landowners and big corporate agribusiness interests to steal land owned by black people.
As The Atlantic put it, “A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America.”
Black landowners have lost 12 million acres of farmland over the last century. You might think this happened back in the dark depths of our past, but it didn’t. The losses mostly occurred in living memory – primarily from the 1950s onward. According to the former president of the Emergency Land Fund, black farmers lost in the neighborhood of 6 million acres of land from 1950 to 1969. According to The Atlantic, much of this land theft was accomplished under the authority of law.
“The land was wrested first from Native Americans, by force. It was then cleared, watered, and made productive for intensive agriculture by the labor of enslaved Africans, who after Emancipation would come to own a portion of it. Later, through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people. It was aggregated into larger holdings, then aggregated again, eventually attracting the interest of Wall Street.”
The Atlantic called this “a silent and devastating catastrophe, one created and maintained by federal policy.” [Emphasis added]
Federal agriculture policy was the key to this transfer of land ownership. During the New Deal era, the federal government took an increasing amount of control over American agriculture. By the 1950s, the feds regulated virtually every aspect of America’s farm economy and had almost complete control over farm credit. Wealthy white landowners and big agriculture conglomerates took advantage of this system and slowly divested thousands of African American farmers of their land.
It started with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “life raft for agriculture” – the Farm Security Administration.
“Although the FSA ostensibly existed to help the country’s small farmers, as happened with much of the rest of the New Deal, white administrators often ignored or targeted poor black people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people.”
In 1945, the Farmers Home Administration, (FmHA) replaced the FSA. According to The Atlantic, “The FmHA quickly transformed the FSA’s programs for small farmers, establishing the sinews of the loan-and-subsidy structure that undergirds American agriculture today.”
There is no denying that African Americans suffered from racism. But you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that government actions gave racists their power, from Jim Crow laws at the state and local level to federal farm policy that enabled white people to dispossess black Americans of their land.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s administration created another federal program known as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. (ASCS.) This agency worked alongside FmHA to provide loans to farmers. The Atlantic described how these federal programs came to dominate agriculture in the U.S. with disastrous results for black farmers. As The Atlantic points out, the members of committees doling out money and credit established by these federal programs were elected locally, during a time when black people were prohibited from voting.
“Through these programs, and through massive crop and surplus purchasing, the USDA became the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole regulator for most of the farm economy in places like the [Mississippi] Delta. The department could offer better loan terms to risky farmers than banks and other lenders, and mostly outcompeted private credit. In his book Dispossession, Daniel calls the setup ‘agrigovernment.’ Land-grant universities pumped out both farm operators and the USDA agents who connected those operators to federal money. Large plantations ballooned into even larger industrial crop factories as small farms collapsed. The mega-farms held sway over agricultural policy, resulting in more money, at better interest rates, for the plantations themselves. At every level of agrigovernment, the leaders were white.” [Emphasis added]
White government officials and bureaucrats were in a perfect positions of power to help their white buddies add to their landholdings. According to The Atlantic, USDA audits and investigations revealed that “illegal pressures levied through its loan programs created massive transfers of wealth from black to white farmers.” Investigations by the United States Commission on Civil Rights reportedly uncovered “blatant and dramatic racial differences in the level of federal investment in farmers.” The FmHA provided much larger loans for small and medium-size white-owned farms, relative to net worth than it did for similarly sized black-owned farms. The report said the FmHA policies “served to accelerate the displacement and impoverishment of the Negro farmer.”
The Atlantic provides anecdotal evidence revealing how unscrupulous people used these federal programs for their own benefit.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, Norman Weathersby, a Holmes County Chevrolet dealer who enjoyed a local monopoly on trucks and heavy farm equipment, required black farmers to put up land as collateral for loans on equipment. A close friend of his, William Strider, was the local FmHA agent. Black farmers in the area claimed that the two ran a racket: Strider would slow-walk them on FmHA loans, which meant they would then default on Weathersby’s loans and lose their land to him. Strider and Weathersby were reportedly free to run this racket because black farmers were shut out by local banks.
“Analyzing the history of federal programs, the Emergency Land Fund emphasizes a key distinction. While most of the black land loss appears on its face to have been through legal mechanisms—“the tax sale; the partition sale; and the foreclosure”—it mainly stemmed from illegal pressures, including discrimination in federal and state programs, swindles by lawyers and speculators, unlawful denials of private loans, and even outright acts of violence or intimidation. Discriminatory loan servicing and loan denial by white-controlled FmHA and ASCS committees forced black farmers into foreclosure, after which their property could be purchased by wealthy landowners, almost all of whom were white. Discrimination by private lenders had the same result. Many black farmers who escaped foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors who set assessments too high, leading to unaffordable tax obligations. The inevitable result: tax sales, where, again, the land was purchased by wealthy white people.”
Of course, racism was also rampant in the private lending sector, particularly in the deep South. Still, there were always bankers who were either free from the scourge of racism or cared more about the color of money than the color of skin. But as The Atlantic alludes to, federal loan programs dominated the market and squeezed out many private lenders. In a system free from government monopolization, there almost certainly would have been more available credit with better terms available for black farmers.
The bottom line is that the existence of federal government programs, coupled with racism, allowed black people’s land to be stolen from them. Racism alone couldn’t have accomplished this without government power to make it actionable.
The widespread notion that centralized national power is good for minorities is a myth. Centralized power has never been friendly toward minorities. From the Jews in Germany, to the Ukrainians in the U.S.S.R, to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, to Africans in the United States, centralized governments have historically oppressed minorities and sometimes worked to exterminate them.
The Civil Rights Act notwithstanding, history shows that the U.S. federal government has by-and-large followed the historical pattern by facilitating, both directly and indirectly, slavery and discrimination.