Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Is Hated By White Farmers And Many In Black America But He’s Biden’s Friend

Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Is Hated By White Farmers And Many In Black America But He’s Biden’s Friend

Agriculture Nominee Vilsack Is Hated By White Farmers And Many In Black America But He’s Biden’s Friend Photo: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden sits with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack during a meeting with local residents, Dec. 2, 2019, in Emmetsburg, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Up until now, President-elect Joe Biden has been getting a thumbs up — for the most part– for his cabinet selections. His decision to bring Obama cabinet staffer Tom Vilsack back to lead the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) is being roundly panned by progressive Democrats and Black and white farmers.

The pick has enraged many Black farmers who say Vilsack’s poor record on civil rights should have disqualified him from the job.

The USDA has been almost exclusively led by white men and the agency has systematically discriminated against Black farmers since its inception in 1862, giving them far less access to crucial federal programs than white.

“Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period,” said Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, a coalition of Black growers and producers 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,” Stovall told Politico. “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.”

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So why did Biden choose Vilsack? It’s because Vilsack has “deep knowledge of the department’s operations and can immediately address the problems facing rural communities, farmers and low-income families in need of food assistance during the pandemic,” according to a source familiar with Biden’s thinking, Politico reported.

A former two-time Iowa governor, Vilsack also served as agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration.

Many people thought Biden would pick Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and longtime House Agriculture Committee leader to become the first Black woman to lead the USDA. Instead, he tapped her for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Fudge had been applauded for her strong commitment to Black farmers and seemed to be hoping she would not be selected for HUD, a slot typically filled by Black people.

“This is a slap in the face of Black Democrats in multiple ways,” The Week reported. “First, it reinforces the stereotype that HUD is where you stuff token Black people you don’t actually care about…basically because it has ‘urban’ in the name. That, as well as the fact that it has nothing to do with her area of expertise, is probably why Fudge had said publicly she did not want the HUD job.”

The Vilsack choice was announced just hours after top civil rights leaders held a virtual meeting with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who will act as a senior adviser to the president, Politico reported.

While there were no farming or rural groups on the conference call, NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson reportedly raised concerns about Vilsack, whose past record was not friendly to the Black community, some in attendance felt.

Vilsack’s treatment of well-respected civil rights leader Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia, came up during the meeting.

Sherrod “was wrongfully forced out of her job under Vilsack’s leadership after a deceptively edited video featured on Breitbart falsely suggested she was racist,” Politico reported.

Johnson pointed out to Biden that Sherrod is considered a hero to Black voters in Georgia.

“Former Secretary Vilsack could have a disastrous impact on voters in Georgia. Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero,” Johnson said in the meeting. Biden dismissed Johnson’s comment about Vilsack, The Intercept reported.

Other Black leaders have called out the Vilsack selection.

Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and Lloyd Wright, former director of civil rights at USDA, wrote 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,” Wright told Politico. “What we don’t want is Vilsack to come back. A reshuffling of the department leadership from four years ago will not do us any more good than what we have now. We didn’t gain anything under Vilsack.”

The letter from Wright pointed out how poorly Black farmers were treated by Vilsack. Wright cited an investigative report by The Counter that found 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 were issued to Black farmers.

“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,” Politico reported.

“With this nomination, the people I represent are feeling a sense of betrayal,” Lucas wrote in The Counter. “It’s not only betrayal by the Biden administration. They’re also voicing how betrayed they feel by the Black leadership in Washington that’s allowing this to happen. Some Blacks are saying, ‘Why should we vote? Why should we vote in Georgia, if the Biden campaign is going to treat us the same way the Trump administration treats us?’ I had not heard that before. That’s how serious this matter is.”

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Racism is deeply embedded in the culture at the USDA, according to Lucas. He said he doubts Vilsack will fix this. 

“I saw many things in my years at USDA. I’ve seen racial epithets written on the walls. I’ve seen employees get monkey dolls as an award. I knew of an incident where a white person held a hangman’s noose in front of a Black employee. When the Office of General Counsel investigated it, they publicly said that employee was a ‘good employee,’” Lucas recalled.