Rooted in Racism – The Unspoken History of Our Food & Farm System

Disclaimer: This 3-part web series only scratches the surface on how racism and white supremacy is embedded in every aspect of our current food and farm system. While not all-encompassing, this blog and webinar series serves as a starting point and provides some clarity regarding how our call for a better food & farm system is deeply intertwined with ongoing calls for racial justice. As a majority white-led organization, this is just one way we are using our power and platform to fight back against white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. We will continue to fight for our vision for a more racially-just food system in collaboration with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx and allies of color who have been at the forefront of this fight forever.

This post was written by Keisha Perkins and Abigail Landhuis, in collaboration with Mackenzie Aime. 

Introduction

As we reflect as a nation on the systemic racism in our institutions, we must also recognize and confront racism in every aspect of U.S. policy, including the agricultural policies that underpin our food and farm systems. Our modern industrial food and agricultural systems are built on a foundation of colonization, genocide, and slavery, as well as other forms of exploitation, oppression, and erasure, all of which were justified by white supremacy. 

We need to overhaul our food and farm system, and a key part of this overhaul is to recognize, reject and uproot the racism in this system and work towards the collective liberation of all people. To do this, we must eradicate the structures that harm Black, Indigineous, Latinx and people of color most. This is the first of a three-part series that looks at the role of racism in our food system — past and present — and why we must dismantle it in order to build a better future.  

Colonization

The roots of systemic racism in our food and farm system are deep, and they stretch as far back as the arrival of European colonists. The false premises of discovery and European rightful ownership resulted in the forced removal of Indigenous people from their land  — land which they had cared for, tended, and relied upon for millennia.  

In the mid-1800s, “Manifest Destiny” was the story white leaders told to justify and encourage Europeans’ right and duty to colonize North America. The myth that God willed white settlers to occupy the continent from coast to coast justified the violation or rejection of treaties with indigenous nations, the forced removal of nations from the land, and the genocide of over 9 million Indigenous people. Land theft, mass killing, and sexual assault were condoned by the U.S. government to provide white settlers with land. This stolen land, as well as the horrors inflicted to take it, is the foundation for the modern agricultural system that exists in the United States today. 

Slavery

A century later, these white supremacist sentiments allowed for the creation of and reliance on slavery and stolen labor that built our nation. This stolen labor, coupled with the simultaneous extraction of farming knowledge from enslaved Black people, directly facilitated America’s economic domination in the 18th and 19th centuries and ultimately built an empire of production, processing and trade. 

Slavery, through the means of owning another person’s body, finally became illegal and the last legally enslaved person was freed on June 19, 1865. Modest attempts were made to provide previously enslaved people with the resources they needed to survive for a brief period. After the Civil War, these were cut short. Reparations that promised up to 40 acres to every newly emancipated Black person were canceled, and land was returned to former white slave owners. 

As a result, four million Black people were left without land. The tradition of Black exploitation for food production continued in the form of tenant farming, sharecropping and land grabbing by white landowners. 

While on paper this form of slavery had ended, people made choices that gave rise to a new form of exploitation, by stoking fear that Black farmers would have their land taken from them at any moment, without cause or justification. Racist policies and treatment were used to control and steal resources from Black sharecroppers for the benefit of white landowners — and it also supported the industrialization of America and the growth of wealth for capitalists in industries beyond agriculture, such as textiles, manufacturing, and banking.  

Violence and resource extraction have remained strong throughout our history. Due to Jim Crow-era segregation policies, Black people were forced into heavily exploited and marginalized farmworker jobs. Deep-seated racist narratives and structures ensured that Black people had little, if any, power to object to discriminatory treatment, and could face deadly consequences if they did. 

When the Depression ravaged the country, its effects were not felt equally among all people. The passing of the Social Security Act (SSA) of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 were supposed to provide protections to workers during times of economic crisis and create safer working conditions. However, both the SSA and FLSA excluded farmworkers, who at the time were largely Black people, from receiving benefits. This intentional exclusion of farmworkers reinforced the racism and inequity embedded in our agricultural system — and forced workers to continue to grapple with deplorable and unjust working conditions.

Immigrant Workers

In more recent history, the agricultural industry has struggled to recruit U.S. citizens willing to do dangerous and backbreaking work. But, instead of improving wages and working conditions, the industry pivoted to recruiting and exploiting immigrants, who have fewer legal protections in the U.S. 

Just as in the 19th century, the people in power used a story to hide what they were doing. Remember Manifest Destiny? This time, they built policies and structures to support their exploitation of immigrants under the false pretense of the “American Dream.”

In 1942, due to a worker shortage during World War II, the Mexican Farm Labor Program Agreement was created to incentivize farmers to hire immigrants from Mexico as farmworkers. As a result, millions of immigrant workers and their families were lured to the United States  under the false promise of better lives for themselves and their children. They were enticed into crossing a hostile border into unwelcoming territory to work for pennies per pound. 

To this day, this is how the majority of the work in our agricultural system is done. Modern-day agreements, such as NAFTA, passed in 1993, enable the exploitation of immigrant workers – many of whom are undocumented. Employers often know they are hiring undocumented workers, and then use the threat of deportation to supress any efforts to secure better, safer working conditions or higher wages. 

Conclusion

Racism is woven into the fabric of our modern food and agricultural system, but its history pre-dates the founding of this country. We have exploited the labor of people from around the world, including Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. We cannot ignore that our country was built on the systemic injustices of slavery and the exploitation of immigrants and Black, Indigenous, and Latinx and other people of color. In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore the injustice in our modern-day food and farming system — and what we can, and must, do to build a better future. Read Part 2 & 3 here.

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