Neil Hamilton is an emeritus professor of law and former director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School in Des Moines. He was raised on a 200 acre farm in Adams County Iowa, on land that had been in his family since the 1870s.
I remember the first time someone called me out for my white privilege. It was decades ago by a Black food activist in Detroit. Naturally I was offended – the label stung coming from someone who had no sense of me other than the color of my skin. My so-called white privilege was growing up in an ill-heated farm house without running water watching my parents eke out our living on a small farm. Where was the privilege in this?
Time can soften many memories and events of recent weeks have forced us, to examine the legacies of racial injustice and wealth inequality plaguing our nation. Recent events made me think more deeply about white privilege, a term used frequently in recent weeks along with the idea of systemic racism. It may be natural for Iowans to strike a defensive pose and say not me – how dare accuse me of exercising a privilege I neither claim nor recognize! But it is important to understand being the beneficiary of white privilege does not make you a racist – that is a function of your thinking. White privilege is a function of how society treats you.
That is why this is an important moment – it gives us a time to stop and think. Iowan’s pride ourselves on our state’s history of commitment to civil rights and racial equality. There is truth to the claims but the idea we are free of racism is a myth of our own making more than reality. If we are honest with ourselves white privilege is all around us – in fact it is almost foundational to our state.
How is this true? The best evidence is our pattern of land ownership and system of farming. You need look no further than the generous public financial supports we provide farmers and landowners to see a form of white privilege at work and it has a price tag in the billions.
In the last two years alone Iowa farmers and landowners will have received public subsidies approaching over two billion dollars, not just in the usual crop insurance and farm program payments, but new crops of benefits in the form of market facilitation payments to compensate for trade wars and now Covid-19 payments to compensate for losses from low prices. The people receiving the payments – perhaps 200,000 farmers, family members, and landowners – are almost exclusively white. We have so few minority landowners in Iowa you could gather them in a bank basement. So where is the white privilege in this you ask? Well you can answer the question yourself – try explaining why society chose these citizens as worthy of this bounty of public welfare and not the mostly minority meat packing workers we demand stay on the job.
The answers are predictable – it is so we will have a stable food supply and plenty to eat, it is to keep the rural economy afloat, it is to make sure land prices don’t collapse and trigger a farm crisis, and so farmers don’t go out of business. There is some truth in all these and the good news is the public broadly supports helping farmers in times of economic stress like now. But do we really fear our nation will go hungry or believe farmland will go unplanted? The reason we choose to send them checks is because we have decided to privilege those who farm and own land rather than those who process our food.
Don’t get me wrong I am not blaming those being showered with support for cashing the checks. Any of us would do the same if we were the chosen. If we have learned any political lesson in Iowa agriculture it is “when the getting is good – get all you can.” The truth is most of the funds going to farmers won’t stay long anyway. No, the checks will pay for the high-priced seeds and chemicals the Corteva’s and Bayer’s sell – and for the big green machinery you see in the fields.
A good deal will pass through farmers as rent into the hands of their landlords who control over ½ of Iowa’s cropland, over 20 percent who live out of state. If you want to know why cash rents and land prices haven’t declined even with falling crops prices and farm incomes it is because we prop up the land market with these subsidies. The truth is we launder money through farmers to support an array of agricultural businesses. It works well for them – they benefit but do not spend any political capital to get the funds – farmers do that for them.
So what is the point – why pick a fight and label this as white privilege? Because we will never to be able to understand or address critical issues at the heart of racial injustice and wealth inequality if we don’t appreciate how the deck is stacked in our favor. Issues like claims of reparations for slavery or how the roots of Black wealth inequality grew from our reversal of Reconstruction. By abandoning the promise of “40 acres and a mule” we resigned millions of former slaves to generations of slave-like conditions as sharecroppers on Southern plantations under the oppressive heel of Jim Crow. How different would life be for these families today if freedmen and women had been allowed to take their rightful place as land owning, independent farm families – like so many of our ancestors here in Iowa?
As Iowans we are privileged in so many ways – with our land, our people and our history, but we should be willing to show some humility in recognizing how these privileges came to be.