Posted on December 12, 2020

Black Farmers, Civil Rights Advocates Seething over Vilsack Pick

Helena Bottemiller Evich, Politico, December 9, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to bring Tom Vilsack back to lead the Agriculture Department has enraged many farmers of color who say his record on civil rights should have disqualified him from the job.

The criticism comes as Biden is under intense pressure to name a historically diverse Cabinet and expectations had been particularly high for USDA, which has been almost exclusively led by white men and systematically discriminated against farmers of color and women, giving them far less access to crucial federal programs since its inception in 1862.

“Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period,” said Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, a coalition of Black growers and producers from key Southern states working to raise awareness on issues faced by Black farmers. “When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that. It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.”

Biden chose Vilsack because he wanted someone at USDA with deep knowledge of the department’s operations and who can immediately address the problems facing rural communities, farmers and low-income families in need of food assistance during the pandemic, according to a person familiar with Biden’s thinking. The person also pointed to Vilsack’s work at USDA establishing the department’s first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee and creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.


While the criticism of Vilsack on racial equity is well-organized and the disappointment runs deep on the left, the opposition is not expected to threaten his path to confirmation. The former two-time Iowa governor who served as Agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration sailed through the confirmation process in 2009 with unanimous approval in the Senate.

Part of the letdown stems from the excitement that had been building for weeks as a large and diverse coalition had publicly urged Biden to pick Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and longtime House Agriculture Committee leader who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department.


Instead, Biden’s team opted to place Fudge at the top of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a position that Fudge herself had earlier noted is typically one of the few departments people of color are selected to oversee. {snip}

The news of Vilsack’s selection came out just hours after top civil rights leaders met virtually with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who’s been selected to serve as a senior adviser to the president. No farming or rural groups were on the call, but NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson brought up concerns about reports that Vilsack had emerged as the frontrunner to lead USDA, again.

Johnson offered a warning to the president-elect and his team, according to a source who was on the call: Picking Vilsack would have negative repercussions in the two razor-thin Senate races in Georgia. Black voters, and particularly rural Black voters, there have not forgotten that Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia and a well-respected civil rights leader, was wrongfully forced out of her job under Vilsack’s leadership after a deceptively edited video featured on Breitbart falsely suggested she was racist.

Once the full video of Sherrod’s remarks came to light, both Vilsack and the White House apologized for pushing her out. {snip}

Biden listened to the concerns, quietly taking notes throughout the roughly 90-min Zoom meeting, but when Johnson specifically suggested the president-elect owed Sherrod a call to discuss selecting Vilsack, Biden looked up and appeared to be taken aback, the source said, perhaps suggesting the former vice president began to understand just how upset the Black community remains about the episode a decade later.


Biden told leaders on the call that he believed they will be happy with the overall Cabinet, once the rest of the nominees are named, and urged them to not prejudge Vilsack, according to the source. The transition has so far named 12 Cabinet members, eight of whom are people of color and six of whom are women.

A source familiar with Vilsack’s thinking told POLITICO that if he’s nominated to lead the department, he will rely on people like Sherrod and others for guidance. Vilsack has worked to repair his relationship with Sherrod after the incident and has sought her counsel since, the source said.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said he was disappointed to learn about both the meeting with civil rights leaders and the Vilsack nomination from news reports after he had spent months working with Biden’s campaign and his transition team. Boyd has reached out to Vilsack and wants to have a conversation to know how he plans to address access to land and credit, increase outreach to farmers of color and more.


However, not everyone is giving the president-elect and his nominee the benefit of the doubt. Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and Lloyd Wright, former director of civil rights at USDA, have penned letters to Biden asking him to reconsider the nomination.

“When it came to issues of race, he was one of the worst I’ve ever come in contact with. What we don’t want is Vilsack to come back,” Wright told POLITICO. {snip}

The letter from Wright outlines key findings from an investigative report by The Counter that shows between 2013 and 2015, 7 percent of microloans went to Black farmers and less than 0.2 percent of USDA’s $5.7 billion loans in 2015 went to Black farmers, among other disparities that precluded Black farmers from access to land and capital.

The investigation found that the Obama administration had distorted government data to falsely suggest there was a renaissance in Black farming under Vilsack, who often touted a “new era for civil rights” at the department while discrimination continued and little had changed.


Today, according to the 2017 Agricultural census, the average size of a farm owned by a white producer was 431 acres and the average size owned by a Black or African American producer was only 132 acres.

While the number of white farmers has remained consistent, the number of farmers of color has dramatically decreased over time.