Race and the Proletarianization of the American Farmer


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This post previously appeared on REALFOOD.org.

A recent discussion I had brought to mind this post from SciAm’s Food Matters blog on the low numbers of African American organic farmers and efforts to increase those numbers:

Despite contributions made by African Americans, the most recent Census of Agriculture found that of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 83 percent have white males as principal operators; African Americans constitute only 1.4 percent of principal farm operators and are particularly underrepresented within organic farming.

This wasn’t always the case; in 1920, the number of African American farmers in the US was at its highest when they constituted 14.3 percent of farm operators. Several factors contributed to this decline, including the general decrease in small farms, the shift to the mechanization of cotton, New Deal farm programs that mainly favored white landowners and, more recently, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers from 1981 to 1996.

Organizations like the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) are working to address the disparity that exists for African Americans within organic farming. SAAFON was founded by Cynthia Hayes and Dr. Owusus Bandele nearly six years ago, following a training on organic production and sustainable agricultural practices.

What I had been discussing has to do with the unique challenges farmers face as yeoman producers in an industrial market.

Here is how R.C. Lewontin put it in the essay The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian:

Like any other industrial processes, the production of farm machinery, chemicals, and seeds, and the turning of threshed wheat into a box of breakfast cereal at the supermarket checkout counter are completely controlled by capital and its demands. The problem for capital, however, has been that sitting in the middle of the transformation of petroleum into potato chips is an essential step, farming, in the hands of two million petty producers. They cannot be dispensed with, they own certain essential means of production whose ownership cannot be concentrated (land in particular), and, while they are economically rational, they consume their surplus rather than turning it into capital. Agriculture is unique among all the sectors of capitalist production by possessing at its productive center an essential process organized around large numbers of independent petty producers. It is as if the spinning of yarn, the weaving of cloth, and the sewing of garments were in the hands of a few large capital enterprises (as they are), but the dyeing and finishing of the raw woven material were unavoidably the exclusive province of hundreds of thousands of home producers who bought the unfinished cloth and sold their product to clothing factories.

Farm producers have historically been in possession of two powers that stood in the way of the development of capital in agriculture. First, farmers could make choices about the physical process of farm production, including what was grown and how much, and what inputs were to be used. These choices, of course, were always constrained, partly because of local conditions of climate and soil, and partly because of the local nature of markets for farm products. Second, farmers were themselves traditionally potential competitors with the commercial providers of inputs, because they could choose to produce seed, traction power, and fertilizer themselves. The problem for industrial capital, then, has been to wrest control of the choices from the farmers, forcing them into a farming process that uses a package of inputs of maximum value to the producers of those inputs, and tailoring the nature of farm products to match the demands of a few major purchasers of farm outputs who have the power to determine the price paid. Whatever production risks remain are, of course, retained by the farmer. As the farmer loses any power to choose the actual nature and tempo of the production process in which he or she is engaged, while at the same time losing any ability to sell the product in an open market, the farmer becomes a mere operative in a determined chain whose product is alienated from the producer. That is, the farmer becomes proletarianized. It is of little import that the farmer retains legal title to the land and buildings and so, in some literal sense, is the owner of some of the means of production. There is no alternative economic use for these means. The essence of proletarianization is in the loss of control over one’s labor process and the alienation of the product of that labor.

Sharecropper plowing. Montgomery County, Alabama. United States. Office of War Information. (1944)

In the U.S. there are a number of policy interventions through the Farm Bill in place to help give farmers agency and stability in the marketplace. They mostly have to do with access to credit and managing risk. Co-ops exist to pool economic power in the marketplace.

It’s not hard to see how African American farmers, already at a historical disadvantage, would have been especially vulnerable, if not mortally crippled by in being cut off from institutional support. Discrimination in extending credit by the USDA was at the heart of Pigford vs. Glickman, the discrimination case referenced in the SciAm post. Already shut out from private sources of credit, under capitalized by historic circumstance, denied membership to co-ops, being denied the credit and other USDA programs was decimating to beleaguered African American farmers.

Ben Jealous of the NAACP summarizes the history that the Pigford settlement attempted to address:

Like so many great ideas in our nation’s history, the USDA farm loan program was the product of compromise. Mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed a plan to help struggling farmers pay off their debts and stave off bankruptcy. But the initiative first had to earn the blessing of White southern senators who dominated Congress.

These senators insisted the federal funds should funnel through southern plantation owners and wealthy white farmers. The white farmers would then distribute the loans to their black tenants and sharecroppers.

In practice, they were often not inclined to pass the funds along.

This dynamic only grew more toxic in the 1960s. As civil rights protests rocked the nation, USDA staff intentionally withheld loans from black farmers who voted, helped register other voters, or joined the NAACP.This discrimination continued in the years that followed, and it had a devastating effect on farmers of color. According to the Census of Agriculture, between 1920 and 1992 the number of African American farmers declined from 925,000 to only 18,000.

Despite this history of flagrant discrimination, President Ronald Reagan abolished the USDA Office of Civil Rights in 1981, leaving farmers with no options for legal recourse. The office remained shuttered until 1996.

That 16-year period of lax oversight was the basis of the Pigford v Glickman lawsuit. During that time, thousands of farmers of color were denied access to loans, information on farm programs, technical assistance, and adequate loan servicing from the USDA. Some were denied loan applications outright, while others were asked to fill out an application only to watch the local USDA supervisor throw it in the trash.

I also had to wonder though, if there wasn’t another less sinister factor where systemic racism played a more indirect, subtler role. As modern farming has become more sophisticated, a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Sciences has become increasingly crucial to success for many farmers. I can’t help but think that if you were an African American kid coming off a farm in the last 40 years and you did beat the odds and overcome the obstacles you faced, when you got to college there would have been a lot of social pressure to take up an area of study that would get you off the farm instead of positioning you for greater success there.

There have been a major contributions to American agriculture by African Americans, most notably by George Washington Carver as the SciAm post noted. Carver spent 47 years heading up the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute. But by the time African Americans started to achieve something resembling real opportunities in higher education, the vocational philosophy of Carver’s boss Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute had fallen out of favor. The vocational training of Tuskegee was eclipsed by the philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois and a push, first towards liberal arts degrees and then towards business degrees. For the 1996-97 school year 19% of African American undergrads choose Business as a major as opposed to 0.3% for Agricultural Sciences. In 2004 Business majors had increased to 25% of African American students, while Ag students continued to make up just 0.3% of the black student population.

That wouldn’t match the impact of systemically being shut out from the institutional support necessary for success in modern farming, but it’s likely one more vector to consider in understanding and addressing the absence of African Americans in the U.S. farming system.

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1. Organic Synthesis: Towards An Inclusion Of African Americans In Organic Farming
Layla Eplett | Food Matters – Scientific American | November 5, 2013
2. The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian
RC Lewontin | Monthly Review | July 7, 2006
3. Pigford vs. Glickman
4. Black farm ownership overcoming decades of discrimination
Ben Jealous | The Sun Sentinel | March 20, 2013
5. The Solid Progress of African Americans in Degree Attainments
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | 2006
6. Business Remains the Preferred Degree of African-American College Students, but Black Students Are Looking to Other Fields
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | Spring, 2000
7. George Washington Carver


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