Judge finds US discriminated on farms, but don’t tell the kids
Days before the 245th anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, two Florida edicts show the complexity of the declaration’s stated principles that led to our nation’s founding and how we deal with those principles today.
One edict was a Florida Board of Education order that severely limits teaching of US systemic racial issues. The other was a Florida federal judge’s ruling last week that blocked planned US loan relief to minority farmers who the judge agrees have historically faced racial discrimination.
Each action separately is pivotal. Together, they support the view that the state Board of Education seeks to silence: that racial prejudice is shamefully still baked into the recipe that government follows day by day.
Let’s look first to the court. US District Judge Marcia Morales Howard in Jacksonville blocked a part of the American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed in March that would give 120% debt relief to only indebted minority farmers because they have faced a history of discrimination against them in US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.
The judge ruled the intent to provide the debt relief “to remedy a long, sad history of discrimination against [minority farmers] in the provision and receipt of USDA loans and programs” … “is not only laudable, it is demanded by the Constitution.”
But, she wrote, there is a catch: the relief was too broad. It would, she said, go automatically to a big-money minority farmer who might be having his best year and is not in debt trouble “yet a small white farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief. Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief provided by the government.” That is illegal.
So, based on her decision, a question for debate is how far may or should government go to make up for past discrimination by giving minorities an edge over the majority? The judge’s decision agrees that past inequities must be remedied by giving the injured groups an advantage, but how big an advantage and how broad?
That same question is being debated in other settings. How much can or should college admissions be skewed to the advantage of groups that were unfairly harmed by those admission policies in the past? How much can or should employers remedy past hiring bias in their current policies?
The question is complex. There may be no one “right” answer. And it raises other questions.
As the judge notes, under the new law white farmers today are penalized relative to minority farmers although neither group may have been involved in past inequities that the government aims correct. So, how far back should we go to remedy the past and how closely linked were those involved today – either white or minority farmers – to those who were helped or harmed in the past? Reasonable people won’t always agree.
Still, we should examine those issues, as the judge did in a 49-page ruling that weighed both sides. The question of how to right past wrongs dealing with race is a great academic question.
But that is precisely the question that Florida’s Board of Education says does not belong in the classroom. Teachers may not teach it or give their opinions on it. If it’s not in a textbook approved by the state it can’t even get into class. And, of course, the judge’s June ruling won’t appear in any textbook for years, if ever.
The judge in Florida, appointed by a Republican president, agrees in her ruling that racial inequities have been part of US Department of Agriculture practice for years and must be dealt with. Yet the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, says teachers who dare to tell students that racial inequities long have been part of government will be removed by the Whack-A-Mole method, struck down one by one. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Despite the state’s denial in its schools regulation, it’s clear the US has long discriminated racially. The state regulation specifies that students can be told of racial prejudice but cannot be told that it was or is built into government, but the judge’s ruling makes clear that it undeniably has been part of government. Her quarrel is how to remedy it.
We are talking here about major ethical and practical questions that teens in school can understand and should think about: how do we right wrongs without harming people who were not involved, what kinds of reparations or systemic changes are fair and proper, how far back do we go to right wrongs of generations ago, and when should society tell groups that have been harmed in the past that they get no special treatment because this is a new day and we start now with a clean slate?
Like many questions in society, those difficult questions have no simple answers. We aren’t even sure whether the judge was right or wrong in her final decision – she might be overruled later, unless the US tweaks its rules on farm debt forgiveness.
One absolute certainty: readers who think about these issues won’t all agree. Almost all of you will agree that there have been major past wrongs based on race. But after that, what practical steps do we take in their wake? For every 100 readers there will be 100 differing answers.
But these issues aren’t just academic. They are practical choices for a nation which from its outset lived with more than just racial prejudice: slavery was built into our economic system, and no denial in the Florida Board of Education or the governor’s mansion is going to erase that fact or its tragic consequences that included lynchings and systemic segregation.
The governor and education officials can hide their own heads in the sand, but it is criminal that they will force teachers and students to do so. In the governor’s simplistic view, all students need to know about our system’s basis can be found in the Declaration of Independence that we will commemorate July 4. Issues not found there don’t belong in the classroom because they are disruptive.
It took just days after the Board of Education instituted this kindergarten approach to education for a federal judge to agree that racism has been part of the federal government and that the Constitution says it must be rooted out. So, governor, is the Constitution too disruptive for the classroom?
Oh, happy Fourth of July.