A group of white farmers sued the federal government last year over a $4 billion loan forgiveness program created for farmers of color. The lawsuit stalled payment distribution to Black recipients and pushed the Biden administration to replace the race-conscious program — created to address past discrimination by the USDA — with a race-neutral version.

Black farmers who were promised relief never received it.

“It’s almost like 40 acres and a mule. Just another empty promise for Black people,” John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told Worldacad in August.

Boyd is now one of four farmers of color who have filed their own lawsuit against the U.S. government in response to the program’s demise, saying the feds broke their agreement. The legal battle is an example of the tension between government efforts to repair past racial discrimination while also upholding a lofty notion of “race neutrality.”

It’s impossible to address racial disparities without identifying people’s race.

The problem has crept up again in President Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a massive $19 billion infusion for farmers and ranchers to implement clean energy and other climate-friendly agricultural practices, as well as improve their land’s environmental conservation. The cash is being funneled into four popular but long under-funded programs administered by the USDA, with an assumption that the dollars will be distributed equitably.

But there’s no way to assure that Black farmers are getting their fair share. Despite the USDA’s long, documented history of racism, the application distributed by the Natural Resource Conservation Service — the department that administers the four programs — doesn’t include a section identifying recipients’ race, ethnicity, or gender, making it impossible to track whether the resources are helping Black farmers as much as white farmers.

USDA policy requires that all departments provide a separate form to farmers and producers to submit their demographic information, but applicants don’t have to fill it out. In the past, USDA employees would independently fill in the applicant’s race if they had an idea. But now, the agency declares the race of the applicant as “unknown” to avoid inaccuracies, a spokesperson said.

As a result, there is no way of knowing whether Black farmers will equally benefit from the largest climate investment in U.S. history. And there’s reason to suspect that, without targeted programs, they won’t.

Between 1910 and 2007, the USDA denied loans to women and people of color at higher rates than it did to white men, which contributed to billions of dollars in land loss. In 2021, 42% of Black farmers were denied USDA loans, in comparison to only 9% of white farmers, according to an analysis by CNN.

In an effort to be more inclusive, the NRCS is asking for public comment on how to distribute the funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and expand program access, especially for underserved farmers. Of the more than 150 comments received so far, a few have implored the agency to prioritize more small-scale producers and landowners, specifically Black people.

“A lot of government programs are not addressing the economic wealth gap and generational post-traumatic experiences and losses of the slave trade, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, civil rights and oppression,” one comment said. “Black Americans have made the most contributions to this country for free for a great period of time. Now is the time for the government to acknowledge and address the unfairness of this government.”

Consistent and reliable data about race and ethnicity is necessary to eliminate such disparities, experts say. That falls not only on agencies that collect the data — it’s also important for individuals to self-disclose, said Erika Broadwater, president of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources.

Because of the nation’s long history of racism, some people of color are reluctant to submit certain self-identifying information out of concern that they may be discriminated against, she added. A 2016 study found that people of color who removed references to their race from their resumes or job applications received higher chances of being considered for job interviews.

“You never know who’s on the other side of that application that has any type of unconscious bias or retained thought about a particular demographic of people,” Broadwater said.

But providing racial information can be beneficial. Unlike the NRCS, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency loan application includes a race box. Although individuals aren’t required to provide their race, “failure to provide this information may result in not receiving targeted funds for which the applicant may be eligible. This information will not be used to evaluate this application,” according to the application package.

“It’s a two-edged sword. You’re darned if you do and you’re still darned if you don’t,” Broadwater said. She added that accountability measures are needed to ensure that those awarding grants, federal funding, or job or business opportunities are held accountable for ensuring equity. “When you think about it from all lenses, there’s never a good outcome until there is some type of legislation that universally prohibits these types of discriminations.”

But there can be wide differences in how laws prohibiting racial discrimination are interpreted.

Currently, there’s been a large debate around the application of the 14th Amendment, ratified after the Civil War to ensure citizenship protections for Black people. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which requires states to equally apply laws to all people, to mean that states cannot use a person’s race to benefit them, said attorney Augustus Corbett. That interpretation gives white conservatives ammunition to argue that programs seeking to repair past discrimination against people of color, such as affirmative action, are unconstitutional because they discriminate against white people.

“By claiming and interpreting the laws as race-neutral, the very laws that were intended to help African Americans, they end up not helping African Americans,” Corbett said.

As an example, Corbett pointed to Biden’s original $4 billion loan program and the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of white farmers who argued that, by rectifying past discrimination against Black farmers, the program discriminated against them. That program was replaced by one that removes race and offers assistance to a broader group of “distressed borrowers.”

The USDA never sent aid to the Black farmers who applied for the original program. As a result, they can’t pay off their debts, according to the class-action lawsuit filed by Black farmers in October, and are at risk of “losing their farms and their livelihoods as a result of the U.S. Government’s wrongful conduct.”

Lester Bonner, one of the plaintiffs, is already in foreclosure proceedings.

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice