WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are engaged in an increasingly intense proxy war over race and agriculture that could have much broader implications for the federal government’s ability to steer the help people of color.

The fight centers on helping taxpayers help farmers at a time when Biden has pledged to focus on fairness and reverse systemic injustices in federal programs. Trump allies argue that the same criteria long used to discriminate against farmers of color – race and ethnicity – cannot be used to make them exclusively eligible for federal programs.

Whites also have civil rights, they say in a lawsuit in Texas federal court.

For black farmers and civil rights groups, this is a proposition that defies reality – and yet they take it very seriously, with generations of civil rights laws potentially at stake.

“How is it acceptable for the government to harm on one side but not to repair on the other? Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Co-operatives, said. Yet, he said, black farmers fear that a federal court could block all programs that direct aid to farmers of color. If that happens, it makes sense that federal programs to help people of color outside the Farm Act be next on the target list.

“We’re worried… you never know how it’s going to turn out,” Blanding said, adding that if you’re a black farmer “you’ve seen things don’t always work in your favor.”

Under Trump, the large and disproportionate trade war relief funds went to non-Hispanic white farmers – about 99.4%, according to a study. Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion US bailout set aside about $ 5 billion to write off debts for black, Hispanic and Asian farmers while providing them with an additional $ 1 billion in technical assistance.

“The effort to help black farmers comes after decades of systemic discrimination and exclusion,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in a statement to NBC News. “Throughout the 20th century, black farmers were denied the loans and grants available to white farmers, and untold generational wealth was lost as a result. “

Now former Trump aides are suing to stop the Biden administration from spending that money. They say that reserving aid for “socially disadvantaged” farmers – defined by federal law as members of groups who have faced racial or ethnic discrimination – amounts to unconstitutional reverse discrimination against whites.

“This is a historic civil rights case,” Stephen Miller, director of America First Legal and senior White House policy adviser to Trump, said in a statement Thursday. “The stakes in this case could not be higher: the government must not be allowed to use its awesome authorities to punish, harm, exclude, prefer, reward or harm its citizens on the basis of their race or ethnicity. . “

America First Legal did not respond to a request for an interview with Miller or other leaders of the Trump-centric group. The term “socially disadvantaged farmer” appears dozens of times in the 2018 farm law that Trump signed, and it dates back at least to the 1990 version signed by President George HW Bush. For subsidy programs, Trump favored the inclusion of other groups including whites – such as veterans and beginning farmers – in the eligibility criteria.

The lawsuit is asking a Texas federal judge to overturn not only this program, but all farm laws that define social disadvantage in the same way. “The court should declare unconstitutional any law limiting the benefits of federal programs to ‘socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers’,” the plaintiffs write in their complaint.

The Agriculture Department is rushing to implement the debt relief policy, according to Dewayne Goldmon, chief adviser to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on racial equity.

“We’re just keeping the accelerator on the ground,” said Goldmon, who was the executive director of the National Black Growers Council until March. This is less about the trial and more about the “urgency that was described to us as we spoke to these borrowers,” Goldmon said in an interview on Friday.

This effort is complicated by a paucity of farmer demographics and federal farm loans by race.

Often the federal government has been a tool of discrimination rather than fairness, from the promotion of slavery to the injustices that led to the Pigford regulation of 1999, which has made some farmers reluctant to identify by race or ethnicity.

Experts estimate that there are less than 50,000 black farmers in the United States, up from nearly a million a century ago.

In early May, the USDA sent out forms to farmers to try to determine which borrowers might be part of a socially disadvantaged group.

Now the department is entering a phase in which a second round of letters is being sent to approximately 13,000 individual farmers explaining that they are eligible for the program and verifying the details of the loans they have received from the federal government. Most of these debts could be wiped out in a matter of months. In a second wave, the USDA plans to give up a few thousand secured loans, which tend to be larger and more complex.

But it could all come to an end even faster than it started. In addition to the underlying lawsuit, America First Legal has filed a motion asking the judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the USDA granting aid on the basis of race or ethnicity.

“A preliminary injunction will not force defendants to deny loan forgiveness to minority farmers and ranchers; it will simply require them to grant loan forgiveness to farmers and ranchers regardless of race,” America’s lawyers wrote. First in a thesis. “The defendants will have the choice of responding to the proposed injunction by extending the loan forgiveness to all farmers and ranchers, or responding by denying the loan forgiveness to everyone.”

For black farmers and their advocates, the difficulty of getting help is not new.

“A lot of the equality improvements that have been made over the years have not been easy,” Goldmon said, noting that his great-grandfather was born a slave and his grandfather was born in a plantation. He said he believed the administration would prevail in court.

“I have full confidence in the Ministry of Justice,” he said.