Black Farmers Matter

We’ve seen the violence against black people. It isn’t new, but still troubling and must be addressed. I wrote about this in my newsletter in July, during a seemingly constant stream of videos capturing police brutality against black people.

…I stopped into a small farm town [in Utah] to stretch my legs in the near middle of a drive from Chicago to California. No one was around on the 4th of July weekend. As I walked the empty sidewalk through town, I noticed wheat at the border of a yard. I thought: Someone was here, someone planted this wheat. 

Wheat is an old world crop, as you know, and one of the first farmed foods. Humans invented farming to secure our sustenance, and it’s how we relate to nature to provide ourselves greater health, nutrients, and earthly delights. Only in the last century did we stop farming with health in mind, with people in mind. Farming became a complex calculus of transport, shelf-stable preservation, and profit rather than a process done for us, by us.

Dehumanizing the customer is a relatively new concept. When customers ask me why we’ve moved away from whole grains and towards sifted, nutrient-deficient grains, I can trace it back a few decades. Dehumanizing farm laborers, however, is a process that extends further back than the last century. Africans were brought here as farm tools and stripped of their agency, liberty, dignity, and liberty. That legacy exists today.

I hadn’t kept up with news and media while driving. But when I reconnected, the news was horrendous. When I heard about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, when I watched the videos of their final moments, I saw how quickly their lives were taken. Likely they were never seen as human by the perpetrators. Manipulating people, exploiting them, violating them, killing them — it’s all easier if you don’t see them as human. Dehumanization is the psychological principle that allows the system to destroy people with minimal burden to the conscience. Mexican people become farm implements to be worn out, Vietnamese people become gooks to be burned up, and black people become first property, then inherent criminals, to be jailed or eliminated. In our society we dehumanize chiefly through skin color, and skin color becomes our justification for man’s inhumanity to man.

We have dehumanized so many facets of society. And we all suffer the consequences.

As I traveled across the U.S., past thousands and thousands of acres of farmland, I noticed how it was all filled with evidence of people but empty of them. How odd — such a deeply human process, but without a human in sight. So I was glad when I held this front porch wheat in my hand; it reminded that someone had planted it, and that before that someone had brought it across the sea, and before that someone had selected the seeds. It made me think about all the people who have made today possible. My heart is heavy these days, but I believe that we will make a better world, one where everyone is seen and respected as human.

This connection between undervaluing black lives and farming led me to think deeper about what farmers can do in solidarity. So, I talked to friends and allies in the Asian Farmers Alliance about making a concerted effort to reach out and find ways to support black farmers. We wrote a letter to send to groups that support black farmers in the US. This is what we said:

We of the Asian Farmers Alliance are writing in light of continuing violence against the African-American community, and to express our solidarity as farmers of color in the US.

We also want to express appreciation for your organization’s work and the significance of your work fighting against the systemic oppression of Black farmers. Through this work you have improved the conditions of Black farmers, aided them practically and logistically, but, more so, created unity amongst black farmers in the fight against the systemic oppressions and dehumanization that have afflicted black people since this country’s founding, and indeed were inherent in its founding. We admire your organization, and our Asian Farmers Alliance seeks to follow in your footsteps and pattern ourselves on your solid model.

As farmers and activists from the diaspora of Asia, we see how the United States food system has continued to exploit people of color. From Chinese exclusion from land ownership while extracting expertise and labor for agricultural production, to the Japanese internment when the USDA inventoried Japanese-American farm businesses to assess their worth and subsequently used that information to give additional cause for internment, to Filipinos brought to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane industry, to current day Southeast Asian refugees — Hmong, Cambodian, and Vietnamese — as farmworkers, we have seen ways labor and lives have been exploited in US agriculture.

The United States has the largest agricultural economy in the world, an economy that was built on the backs of Black people. Your work has made our work as farmers in the US possible. But, the farming framework we work in is predicated on inequality. We are fighting against the same unfair system, a system that would instead have us compete against each other. Instead, we stand with you— as farmers of color, as Asian farmers, to undo the racism in society as well as in our communities.

The Movement for Black Lives has given all Americans a chance to examine the historical legacy of violence and discrimination, and continue to seek justice that will benefit all. We are dedicated to supporting this movement and ensuring that its progress extends to rural America, farming communities, food-producing communities, and the entire food and agriculture system. We want to

  • Build on the legacy of Pigford to encourage that this country look honestly at its past and addressing its intentional, institutionalized robbery and oppression of people of color;
  • Support HR 40 and other efforts to examine the possibilities and implications of government reparations to descendants of American slavery;
  • Change the culture of government and organizational discrimination of people of color, especially black communities;
  • Develop an Asian Farmers Alliance to build solidarity amongst our different ethnic backgrounds and histories, fight against anti-blackness racism in our own community, and create a relationship in solidarity with black farmers and communities.

We hope that we can come together to talk discuss how we as Asian farmers can work with you towards social justice for our communities.

I look forward to hearing back and starting a long relationship in solidarity. In the meantime, we have much internal work to do.