Shade Lewis had just come in from feeding his cows one sunny spring afternoon when he opened a letter that could change his life: The government was offering to pay off his $200,000 farm loan, part of a new debt relief program created by Democrats to help farmers who have endured generations of racial discrimination.
It was a windfall for a 29-year-old who has spent the past decade scratching out a living as the only Black farmer in his corner of northeastern Missouri, where signposts quoting Genesis line the soybean fields and traffic signals warn drivers to go slow because it is planting season.
But the $4 billion fund has angered conservative white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded because of their race. And it has plunged Mr. Lewis and other farmers of color into a new culture war over race, money and power in American farming.
“You can feel the tension,” Mr. Lewis said. “We’ve caught a lot of heat from the conservative Caucasian farmers.”
The debt relief is redress set aside for what the government calls “socially disadvantaged farmers” — Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other nonwhite workers who have endured a long history of discrimination, from violence and land theft in the Jim Crow South to banks and federal farm offices that refused them loans or government benefits that went to white farmers.
The program is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming, which is overwhelmingly white. Black farm advocacy groups say that nearly all the land, profit and subsidies go to the biggest, most powerful farm operations, leaving Black farmers with little. But in large portions of rural America, the payments threaten to further anger white conservative farmers.
The plans have drawn thousands of enraged comments on farm forums and are being fought by banks worried about losing interest income. And some rural residents have rallied around a new slogan, cribbed from the conservative response to the Black Lives Matter movement: All Farmers Matter.
If you thought the politics of white resentment was going to cost Democrats any shot at rural states before, wait until Republicans are running ads with camera shots where money is given from white hands in suits to black hands in work shirts, and the white hand in the work shirt in the shot gets nothing. Run that for 2022 and even California will lose multiple House seats.
Support for Black Lives Matter among white voters has cratered in the last year (and it's fallen among Latino voters too.)
It's only going to get worse, too. This will absolutely be a rallying point in every rural community and things are going to go very, very badly for Black farmers. Granted, it just means Republicans will win rural House districts by 30 instead of just 20, but it could very well cost Dems seats in 2022 on top of everything else.
Really what I'm afraid of at this point is more violence. And Republicans are already suing in multiple states to block the program.
No, I quickly foresee Black farmers quietly telling the Biden administration that they don't want the money, because it comes guaranteed with the hatred of neighbors. And Black farmers in general are only going to suffer more in the months and years ahead.
Because we always do.
This is America.