Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is suing the federal government claiming that the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief plan passed last month discriminates against white farmers and ranchers.
Miller, a conservative Republican and rancher, states in the lawsuit filed Monday in Fort Worth federal court that he is suing in his capacity as a private citizen — not on behalf of the state.
Among several other major provisions, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 offers relief to “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers, which the plan defines as people of color. Miller’s complaint against the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the definition in the program fails to include “white ethnic groups that have unquestionably suffered” because of their ethnicity, such as those of Irish, Italian, German, Jewish and eastern European heritage.
Attorneys are seeking class-action status for the suit on behalf of white farmers and ranchers.
The lawsuit is sponsored by America First Legal — a group founded by Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s former senior adviser, along with other Trump officials to be a conservative response to the ACLU.
“America First Legal opposes discrimination in all forms,” AFL President Stephen Miller said in a statement.
Black farmers in America make up about a quarter of disadvantaged farmers targeted in the relief bill and have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, according to the Washington Post. Agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say this stems from systemic racism, biased government policy and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden last month, which would provide an estimated $10.4 billion for agricultural and food supply-chain programs. Nearly half would go to relief for farmers of color. While Congress passed last year’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act with significant buy-in from both political parties while Donald Trump was in the White House, the American Rescue Plan passed solely with Democratic votes in both the House and Senate this year, after Biden was elected.
The lawsuit says that the exclusion of white ranchers and farmers in the program is unfair and asks the court to declare benefits targeting only people of color unconstitutional.
“Doing so will promote equal rights under the law for all American citizens and promote efforts to stop racial discrimination, because the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” the lawsuit states, saying the program “lurches America dangerously backward.”
The lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, whose court became a favorite for the conservative Texas Attorney General’s Office for federal lawsuits fought during the Obama administration. A 2007 appointee of President George W. Bush, O’Connor handed Texas several major wins over the federal government opposing Democratic policies, including gutting Obamacare, ruling against family leave benefits for gay or lesbian couples and blocking guidelines to allow transgender students to use bathrooms aligning with their gender identity.
Spokespeople for Miller, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Farm Bureau Federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The complaint asks the court that if it doesn’t rule the definition unconstitutional to “at least” expand it to include those of Anglo Saxon heritage that have experienced historical discrimination or include those with “any discernible trace of minority ancestry.”
“An interpretation of the underlying statutes that excludes plaintiffs like Miller because he is not ‘black enough’ would raise grave constitutional concerns under Bolling v. Sharpe and it should be rejected for that reason alone,” the complaint states, referencing a lawsuit where the U.S. Supreme Court case held that the Constitution prohibited segregated public schools in Washington, D.C. “The statutes should not be construed to empower the Department of Agriculture to choose a minimum threshold of minority ancestry when determining eligibility for benefits.”