MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A group of Midwestern farmers sued the federal government Thursday alleging they can't participate in a COVID-19 loan forgiveness program because they're white.
The group of plaintiffs includes farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio. According to the lawsuit, the Biden administration's COVID-19 stimulus plan provides $4 billion to forgive loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who are Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Alaskan native, Asian American or Pacific Islander.
White farmers aren't eligible, amounting to a violation of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights, the lawsuit contends.
"Were plaintiffs eligible for the loan forgiveness benefit, they would have the opportunity to make additional investments in their property, expand their farms, purchase equipment and supplies, and otherwise support their families and local communities," the lawsuit said. "Because plaintiffs are ineligible to even apply for the program solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement saying it was reviewing the lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice, but that the USDA plans to continue to offer loan forgiveness to "socially disadvantaged" farmers.
Attorneys for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the action on the white farmers' behalf in federal court in Green Bay.
The filing seeks a court order prohibiting the USDA from applying racial classifications when determining eligibility for loan modifications and payments under the stimulus plan. It also seeks unspecified damages.
Minority farmers have maintained for decades that they have been unfairly denied farm loans and other government assistance.
The USDA in 1999 and 2010 settled lawsuits from Black farmers accusing the agency of discriminating against them.
Still, less than 2% of direct loans from the Trump administration in 2020 went to Black farmers. And some Black farmers have criticized Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for failing to address a backlog of discrimination complaints and failing to hire minorities for high-level positions.
Vilsack, who served under President Barack Obama and returned to the role after President Joe Biden took office, said in a statement last month that generations of socially disadvantaged farmers have suffered due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. He has been trying to assure minority farming groups that he will work to stem racism within the USDA.
Civil rights advocates have hailed Biden's stimulus plan as a means of finally helping farmers of color.