Pillars of Racism in the United States’ Food System

By Mo Constantine, May 15, 2017

Through trade agreements, technology, and a strong political economy, the United States’ agricultural system has become a global force, affecting food production, nutrition, and farmer livelihoods across the world. Many present-day farmers and agrarians speak of past generations, when the United States was home to thousands of small, family-owned farms that sustainably produced food to feed their local communities. It was not until the World Wars and the Earl Butz era that agriculture became agribusiness and farms began to consolidate into large, industrial corporations unconcerned with workplace safety, environmental sustainability, or nutrition. However, this narrative is misleading in that it overlooks many predecessors to agribusiness that operated not too differently than the oppressive, industrial agricultural system present today. In order to achieve a fair, sustainable, and equitable food system in the United States, we must understand the origins of our nation’s agricultural system and the foundation on which it stands. This requires understanding our history of exploitation, enslavement, disenfranchisement, and racism. Only once we acknowledge that our current food system is rooted in the systemic discrimination of a designated “other” can we begin the process of effectively dismantling the injustices present in the food system.

United States agriculture has relied on systems of oppression and racism from its very inception. When Europeans began settling on the coast of what would be the United States, they quickly began conquering the native peoples through massacres, enslavement, and the spread of disease. Colonists arrived to find that “capital could be created out of thin air: one merely had to capture an Indian or find an Indian to capture another” (Gallay 10). In the Carolinas, Virginia, and Louisiana, the enslavement of the Native Americans provided the means through which the colonists began building a booming economy. The slave trade spread west, eventually reaching California, where members of the Apache and Sioux nations were kept as slaves until the nineteenth century (11). Many Native Americans were forced to work on farms that were being developed by the European settlers on their stolen land.

Without their land, Native Americans went from a population that had survived for thousands of years off the land to one of the most impoverished groups in the United States. Many scholars, including W.E.B. Dubois and Walter Rodney, have pointed out the “importance of land as a source of wealth (and its absence as a source of poverty)” (Norgaard, Reed, Van Horn 26) and also that “the destruction of the land becomes a vehicle for racism and hunger” (43). Beginning with the European colonization of America in the 1600s, the following three centuries witnessed the confinement of Native Americans to increasingly small plots of land with no means to fight unfair land treaties or instances where such treaties were broken to benefit white Europeans. Many natives were forced to assimilate into European culture in order to survive since they could no longer subsist off the land.

On the stolen land, the settlers began planting barley and peas, among other sustenance crops. The Native Americans they had enslaved were used as agricultural workers with their knowledge of the land, they were key players in ensuring the settlers’ success (Gilio-Whitaker 3; Gallay 2). They introduced the Europeans to corn, among other crops, showed them how to cultivate it, and it quickly became their most important crop. As the agricultural economy grew throughout the 1700s, large cash crop plantations were introduced, on which Native Americans were also used as slaves until the Civil War (Snyder 4).

Native Americans were not unilaterally freed until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, but their numbers decreased rapidly after the eighteenth century. They were difficult to enslave, as their knowledge of the land and connection to communities outside of the settlers’ provided them with a means of escape, and their lack of immunity to European diseases made them uniquely susceptible to illness. By the 1700s, Native American enslavement had given way to the Atlantic slave trade. Africans were taken from their homelands in West and Central Africa and forced to work the land in the newly established United States. They, too, brought valuable agricultural knowledge and are responsible for the success of the largest agricultural industries of the time, such as cotton and tobacco. They introduced their superior methods of growing certain crops and invented machines that would make agricultural work more efficient and therefore more profitable. According to oral history, “enslaved African women brought okra and rice seeds to the Americans by hiding them in their braided hair. The plants [became] essential to the development of the United States” (Bandele, Myers 3). Through their transportation of crops across the Atlantic and aided by the sustainable and effective agricultural practices learned from ancient traditions, African slaves greatly aided the success of the South’s agricultural economy.

When slavery was abolished in 1865, the government and white landowners had to find other methods for ensuring the subjugation of people of color if they wanted to continue white domination and maintain their profits that depended on exploitation. Though the government set up what seemed like good opportunities for freedmen, such as the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 which attempted to transfer public land to freed slaves, most freedmen did not have the material means to take up such property, and the efforts were mostly wasted. By 1910, there were 175,000 black farm owners and 1.15 million white farm owners, with the average white-owned farm nearly twice the size of the average black-owned farm (Higgs 150, 162). Those who were able to obtain land often had it seized or vandalized by the government and white neighbors. Clyde Ross, born in Mississippi in 1923 to two former slaves, remembers when his family lost everything to an unjust legal system committed to the oppression of black people: “Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping (Coates 5).”

Though slaves were free, the United States had been founded on principles of racism, which continued to create struggles for freedmen. Racist policies were built into the agricultural system and the “impact [was] cumulative and has created multi-generational exclusions from opportunities that manifest today” (Center for Social Inclusion). Agriculture was not just about growing food, but was a means of power; without property, black citizens were denied the stability and advancement that accompanies the formation of communities, providing the white population with continued control and domination.

At first, racialized policies were explicit. After slavery came the Black Codes, enacted by southern states during the Reconstruction Era. Varying from state to state, the Black Codes intended to restrict black labor, forcing black people to work for low wages and punishing them if they broke their contract. They enacted heavy penalties for vagrancy, yet required black people to pay an annual tax if they worked as anything other than a farmer or servant. Moreover, some states used the Codes to limit property ownership, forcing black people to work as sharecroppers and enter into unfavorable work contracts (Black Codes 1).

The Black Codes were quickly deemed unconstitutional, only to be replaced by Jim Crow laws at the end of the Reconstruction Era. Though slightly less harsh, Jim Crow offered little improvement to the situations of black farmworkers. Most remained sharecroppers, unable to own their own land or buy insurance, since black clients were “scientifically” deemed substandard risks (Heen 387). They were also prevented from competing for better wages due to the enticement and emigrant agent laws, which made it difficult and sometimes illegal to change jobs. The vagrancy laws established by the Black Codes were still in place, said to be “reserved almost exclusively for black men” (Blackmon 1), and often resulted in black people being forced into indentured servitude. Douglas A. Blackmon tells the story of Green Cottenham, a man arrested for vagrancy in 1908 and sentenced to a year of hard labor. The police department, through a standing arrangement between the county and the area’s industries, would sell men like Cottenham mostly to local farmers, but also to corporate prison mines. Once there, the owners of the farm or the mine could treat the prisoners however they wished: “The brutal forms of physical punishment employed against ‘prisoners’ in 1910 were the same as those used against ‘slaves’ in 1840” (Blackmon 23). Once again, thousands of black people were forced to work the land as slaves, contributing years of labor to the food system and getting nothing in return.

The Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were implemented to ensure the continuation of white dominance, especially in the agricultural south. They ushered in a period of neo-slavery, so that the large plantations dependent on slave labor that had shaped the South’s economy could be maintained. It was not until the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s that this form of black neo-slavery ended. Black citizens were still denied equal rights, however, and faced structural racism in the form of job and housing discrimination. A study by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission showed that “the USDA…unjustly denied African-American farmers loans, disaster aid, and representation on agricultural committees…earning it the nickname ‘the last plantation’” (Bell 4). It was not until the very end of the twentieth century when Pigford v. Glickmana class-action lawsuit brought against the USDA by black farmers for unjustly denying them loans was settled, providing some compensation for the discrimination they had faced. However, nearly 60,000 farmers were left out of the settlement, so it was not until 2010 and the signing of the Claims Settlement Act under President Obama that the $1.25 billion owed to the claimants was made available (4).

Housing discrimination was also common during the 1900s and is still evident today, causing higher rates of hunger and poverty in majority black communities. Many black people in search of home ownership in the early- and mid-1900s were denied mortgages and forced to pay much higher rates than white people. In order to keep neighborhoods segregated, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal; whites employed every measure, from ‘restrictive covenants’ to bombings” (Coates 36). The Federal Housing Administration rated neighborhoods for their supposed stability, or the quality of house insurance available to them, which translated into the number of black people in that area. All-white areas were given a rating of a green “A,” while mostly black areas received a red “D” rating, making them ineligible for FHA backed loans. The practice of drawing a red line around the areas on a map that were home to black families became known as “redlining” and was another way to ensure the oppression of black people (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Map of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The areas marked in red were denied FHA-backed mortgages due to the presence of people of color. The Atlantic: Frankie Dintino



Redlining quickly became the law of the land, with many city officials such as those in Chicago and Baltimore “instructing city building inspectors and health department investigators  to cite for code violations anyone who rented or sold to blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods” (Rothstein 3). Denied mortgages and restricted to certain areas, black neighborhoods became overpopulated, leading to overcrowded schools and diminished education, which in turn gave rise to gangs and crime. Due to the marginalization and discrimination that has left them facing higher poverty rates and fewer resources, communities of color experience food insecurity over twice as high as white neighborhoods (African American Poverty). In an effort to mitigate hunger, the Black Panther Partya community-based, anti-racist organization founded in 1966began the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which was one of the first school breakfast programs in the United States. By 1971, the program was operating at thirty-six different sites across the nation (Potorti 45), feeding over 10,000 children every day before school (Baggins 7). It was one of the most successful programs of its time, not only providing thousands of children with the nourishment they needed to go to school and build healthier communities, but also bringing attention to the hunger and poverty faced by communities across America, something that was just then coming to the public’s attention.

However, then-Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation John Edgar Hoover was suspicious of the Black Panther Party and its efforts to combat racism. The FBI was concerned with the Party’s self-defense programs meant to “police the police” in order to protect black citizens from being unjustly detained, harmed, or killed by a racist police force. Director Hoover declared the Black Panther Party to be a national hate group and issued a memo throughout the FBI: “The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the Black Panther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for (Collier 14).”

After making the Breakfast for Children Program a national target, it was only a matter of time before both the program and the party were dismantled. As a result, disenfranchisement continued and black communities still experience higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, hunger, and crime than white communities. Though slavery and segregation have legally ended, structural racism is present in every institution and system, the food system being one of the most glaring examples.

Asian and Latino immigrants have also experienced injustice at the hands of the food system. In the 1850s at the beginning of the California Gold Rush, there was an influx of Chinese and Filipino immigrants looking for jobs and money to bring back to their families. Many found employment in California’s agricultural sector, which was the fastest growing agricultural economy in the United States at the time (Minkoff-Zern, Peluso, Sowerwine, Getz 69). However, the Chinese referred to as “coolies” in California which was a rough translation of the Chinese character meaning “bitter labor” were blamed for depressed wage levels because of their willingness to work for less. This led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first United States law prohibiting the immigration of a certain ethnic group. Restricting Chinese immigration minimized competition for white agricultural workers since at the time, seven out of eight farmworkers in California were Chinese (69).

By classifying Chinese immigrants as nonwhite and noncitizens, it “set the stage for later enclosure laws” (Minkoff-Zern, Peluso, Sowerwine, Getz 66) that negatively impacted the influx of Japanese immigrants in the 1890s. By 1910, the agricultural sector in California housed two-thirds of Japanese laborers (70). Despite the fact that Japanese landowners were paying higher rents than their white neighbors and that there were relatively few Japanese farmers compared to white farmers, white Californians felt that the Japanese were taking away their labor and land opportunities, so in 1913 the state passed the Alien Land Law Act that prohibited Japanese people from acquiring land. This effectively eliminated any possibility of Japanese immigrants owning farms and participating in agriculture as anything but underpaid and marginalized laborers. Matters only became worse in the 1940s: after the internment of the Japanese during WWII, many were never able to regain their lost land. The United States, through its settler colonialist history, developed a pattern demonstrating that “as the state regulates agricultural resources, it creates racial categories that separate lawful members of society from ‘alien’ outsiders” (66) in order to ensure white accumulation and success. This results in the marginalization of people of color to the “unpropertied classes of America” (73)

In the 1970s, there was an influx of Hmong immigrants after they were deemed political refugees due to the United States’ Secret War in Laos. Many Hmong people had practiced subsistence agriculture in their home countries and so continued their practices in the United States. A large portion of Hmong refugees settled in southern and central California, one of the largest agricultural producing regions in the world. In Southeast Asia, farming was a family practice in which everybody was expected to participate and exchange in-kind services for their extended family, but in the United States it is considered illegal to not pay farmworkers and not provide the necessary benefits. Hmong farmers, who found it difficult to find, much less understand, government regulations, were therefore cited for many Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) violations that required them to pay costly fines (Minkoff-Zern, Peluso, Sowerwine, Getz 77). Hmong agriculture was seen by the United States as problematic and illegal, another example of the difficulties faced by refugees and immigrants that limited their ability to access land and provide their families and communities with nourishment.

As Asian immigrants were finding it increasingly difficult to own and operate farms, black farmers were moving to other industries, and native tribes were still fighting to regain their land, agribusiness was looking toward Mexico to provide cheap labor. In 1942, the U.S. government initiated the Bracero Program, which allowed contract laborers from Mexico and Central America to come to the United States as agricultural workers in order to solve the labor shortages. It also guaranteed the workers a minimum wage, good living conditions, and safety from discrimination. But because the Bracero workers had no representation on any committee, board, or agency and had little control over their own daily lives, abuses were rampant. Many employers provided low quality food and housing and paid workers irregularly and often below the set minimum wage. And unlike other workers, Bracero workers did not have the freedom to change jobs, so complaints often led to deportation. The U.S. Department of Labor Bracero Director Lee Williams even went as far to call the program was a system of “legalized slavery” (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The Bracero Program helped open the doors for an increase of illegal immigrants who were quickly hired by employers looking to pay less than the program allowed. The ability of agricultural employers to control immigrant workers with threats of deportation and abuse has led to systemic exploitation, today’s neo-slavery. Immigrant farmworkers are subjected to harassment and mistreatment, exposed to dangerous pesticides and machinery, live in poverty, and are unable to report injuries or obtain health care their many for work-related illnesses and injuries. Even though the Bracero Program was dismantled in 1964 for its abuses, legal immigrants that are imported under the H-2 sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act face equally appalling conditions. Since they are prevented from becoming citizens and must return to Mexico once their temporary work visa expires, H-2 workers are known as “the disposable workers of the U.S. economy” (Southern Poverty Law Center). Most Mexican and Latin American workers, regardless of status, are viewed this way, constituting an invisible majority of the agricultural workforce that provides the food for a nation built and dependent on exploitation.

In 1994, The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented, eliminating most tariffs on trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. This forced the immigration of thousands more Mexican workers as their economy plummeted due to the agreement. Whether this was an intentional or unintentional outcome is up for debate. Through NAFTA, the United States was able to flood the Mexican market with subsidized American corn, among other products, forcing Mexican corn farmers out of business. Corn prices soared, making the nation’s staple crop too expensive to grow and buy. Mexico is where corn originated and the country is heavily dependent on it, hence the saying “Sin maiz, no hay pais”no corn, no country. The United States controls seventy-percent of the global corn market (Bhandari, Sturr 2), so Mexican farmers were destined to go out of business once the trade tariffs were removed under NAFTA. Mexican farmers now earn half the amount for their corn but must pay fifty-percent more for their tortillas (James 33). As a result, 20 million Mexicans live in food poverty, twenty-five percent of the population does not have access to basic food and one-fifth of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition (Carlsen 5).

Many Mexicans came to the United States, desperately in search of better pay through employment by the very same agribusiness regime that made it impossible for them to earn a living wage in their home country. Forced to leave their homes and families, Mexican agricultural workers were met with horrible working conditions and the xenophobia and racism of the American people who blamed them for stealing their jobs. Discussing NAFTA and the plight of farmworkers in California, Sandy Brown and Christy Getz write, “Immigration policy has historically served as a mechanism, not only for managing labor flow, but also for actively producing an ‘other,’ in this case a labor force that can be viewed as undeserving of the right and benefits afforded citizen workers and that can be scapegoated during periods of economic downturn” (Brow, Getz 125). The racism already built into American culture encourages the creation of an “other,” based on appearance and ethnicity, that then serves to justify the mistreatment and oppression of people of color and immigrants. The efficient and cheap food system of which the United States often boasts is only made possible by a political economic system that seeks never ending accumulation and power at any cost, reliant on a social system that uses racism and xenophobia to erase the existence of the people who, through their exploitation, make America the powerful country that it is.

Today, immigrants and people of color must contend with environmental racism, a term coined to describe the habit of placing toxic waste dumps, factory farms, and other health and environmental hazards near low-income communities of color who have been rendered unable to fight against it. Black, Latino, Asian, and immigrant farmers are even more food insecure than non-agricultural workers of the same demographics. Those who have been historically discriminated against by the American food continue to feel the effects, facing more subtle systemic injustices such as lack of access to healthy and affordable food, displacement from land due to gentrification, and placement of environmental and health hazards in communities of color (see Figure 2). The food movement is attempting to remedy some of these issues, yet many white “food justice activists,” who constitute a majority of food justice initiatives, fail to see the connection between race and food injustice.

Many practices of the food justice movement and spaces within it are seen as only white, “not only through the bodies that tend to inhabit and participate in them but also through the discourses that circulate through them” (Guthman 266). This is because white people often have more resources and time to devote to activism and nonprofit work. However, since they are more likely to not have faced the same obstacles as those most adversely affected by the food system, their efforts can sometimes serve to further silence and oppress the very groups they advocate for. For example, many food justice initiatives are focused on sustainability initiatives and its advocates promote the organic and Slow Food movements, which should only become a priority once more pressing issues are solved. For many immigrants and people of color, “it’s hard to think about the sustainability of our farm without land security” (Bowens 6). To suggest that consumers “vote with their dollar” and buy more sustainable, and usually more expensive and more difficult to prepare, food items can be insulting to those who are struggling to access any healthy food at all to feed their families.


Figure 2: People of color and immigrants experience discrimination at every level of the food system, from unjust agricultural policies, to lack of access to healthy food and the placement of hazardous factory farms and disposal sites primarily in communities of color.


It would be more inclusive and more effective to prioritize the dismantling of structural injustices that have been built into and continue to operate within the food system. Since racism and food injustice are causes and effects of each other, one cannot be solved without the solving the other. As Natasha Bowens, author of The Color of Food, writes, in today’s world, “the food justice movement and the Black Lives Matter movement are fighting the same beast” (Civil Eats 4). Since the American food system is built on racism and xenophobia, the food justice movement must have anti-racist and pro-immigrant efforts as a center of its focus.

Such efforts, in the past, have shown that when structures of exploitation and discrimination are exposed and addressed, positive change will follow. For example, in response to the Bracero Program, the United Farm Workers was formed by César Chávez and Gilbert Padilla that transformed migrant labor (Southern Poverty Law Center). They led the charge in demanding better wages and taught farmworkers how to fight for their rights and livelihoods, eventually achieving the passage of a law that protected union activity, the only one of its kind in the nation. Additionally, the Black Panther Party, though dismantled by the government, eventually inspired the USDA to start the School Breakfast Program that now feeds nearly thirteen million students daily (Collier 18).

To remedy the food injustices prevalent in the food system, the United States needs to make reparations to those it has stolen from, oppressed, disenfranchised, and discriminated against. Native Americans need to be given back enough land to sustain healthy communities, and in fact there has been steps taken by the United Nations correspondent on indigenous peoples, James Anaya, to return land to Native Americans, but Congress has refused to meet with him (UN Official). However, in 2016, under the Obama administration, the U.S. government paid $492 million to seventeen Native American tribes for “mismanaging natural resources and other tribal assets” (Hersher 1), which is one of many steps that should be taken toward full reparations. Additionally, neighborhoods of color, especially majority black neighborhoods, need to be allocated state and federal funds for school education, better access to healthy and affordable food, and improved maintenance of the community. The USDA must also enforce better treatment standards and better pay for agricultural and factory workers to make sure that no worker goes home injured, sick, or hungry. And within the agricultural system, there must be an acknowledgement of different cultural practices among immigrant farmers and enough flexibility to address issues as they arise.

The government should eliminate NAFTA and ensure that the United States is not a motivator of global hunger and food insecurity through unfair trade agreements and exploitation of international land and workers. Instead of flooding the market with cheap, subsidized American products and incentivising the exportation of crops by hungry nations and communities, the United States should support international food sovereignty. As one of the current world superpowers, the United States has the ability to set up the framework for food sovereignty across the globe simply by making it a goal for America itself. In order to achieve self-sustainability, the United States would have to ensure that it can produce the food needed to feed its citizens and support farmers without relying on imports and profits from an international market. This would require a restructuring or elimination of the agricultural subsidy system and a market that responds to consumer demand. Without the pressure to survive in a market controlled by the United States’ artificially cheap products, developing countries would find it easier to achieve food sovereignty and address hunger. Though it would likely still be challenging until food sovereignty becomes a global objective, the United States could take the first steps in leading us to a more equitable food system.

We need to form a society that makes live and lets live, an improved version of Foucault’s concept of biopower and one that recognizes that disempowering groups of people in order to support an illusion of unity among the collective body is unsustainable. It collapses as soon as enough of the oppressed and their allies take a stand against the system, realizing that it relies on their continued silence (see Figure 3). The agricultural and food systems rely on their abuses and those they abuse remaining invisible, so the food justice movement’s primary goal should be to spread knowledge of our exploitative history and awareness of the contemporary oppressive politics at play. Those already fighting for food justice should direct their efforts at policy change. Even small changes, such as a redirection of a portion of the subsidies given to commodity crops to instead support the production of fruits and vegetables, can dramatically improve the food system and the health of the nation. In this era of globalization, small changes will quickly snowball, hopefully eventually requiring a restructuring of the global food system, helped along by the crisis of climate change.

Though such decisions are controlled by powerful corporations whose only goal is profit, history has proven that even in a corrupt market, consumer demand and a few loud voices can lead to change. Rachel Carson and her supporters were able to persuade the USDA to remove DDT, the most harmful pesticide from the market, with the publication of Silent Spring. Cargill, one of the largest meatpacking companies in the world, has recently shifted its focus to more sustainable protein alternatives, responding to consumer demand for “cleaner meat.” Ireland is attempting to create a legal right to food, New Zealand has eliminated agricultural subsidies, and France just renewed its commitment to combating climate change. It will be difficult and will take time that many do not have, but it is possible to believe that the United States government, with enough activists fighting for better policies and enough consumers and citizens demanding change, could begin to address the structural inequalities, racism, and exploitation that remain as pillars of the food system.

Figure 3: On the left is the traditional view of power, which flows downward from the leadership to the people. The graphic on the right represents the functioning of power that relies on the abuse and oppression of groups and individuals, as is true in the United States. If you remove the pillars of support, you eliminate the power. Source: Daniel Hunter

This paper represents the views of its author, who does not necessarily endorse the views of other authors on this site.

Copyright © 2017 Mo Constantine. All rights reserved.