|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Any discussion about race and the USDA has to start with the crisis of black land loss. Although the U.S. government never followed through on its promise to freed slaves of "40 acres and a mule," African-Americans were able to establish a foothold in Southern agriculture. Black land ownership peaked in 1910, when 218,000 African-American farmers had an ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.
By 1992, those numbers had dwindled to 2.3 million acres held by 18,000 black farmers. And that wasn't just because farming was declining as a way of life: Blacks were being pushed off the land in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 1920, one of out seven U.S. farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.
The USDA isn't to blame for all of that decline, but the agency created by President Lincoln in 1862 as the "people's department" did little to stem the tide -- and in many cases, made the situation worse.
After decades of criticism and an upsurge in activism by African-American farmers, the USDA hosted a series of "listening sessions" in the 1990s, which added to a growing body of evidence of systematic discrimination:Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials -- especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South -- spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA's local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn't spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.
Among those concluding that such racial bias persisted were the USDA's own researchers: In the mid-1990s, they released a report [pdf] which, analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, found "minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans."
Adding insult to injury, when African-American and other minority farmers filed complaints, the USDA did little to address them. In 1983, President Reagan pushed through budget cuts that eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights -- and officials admitted they "simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them" until 1996, when the office re-opened. Even when there were findings of discrimination, they often went unpaid -- and those that did often came too late, since the farm had already been foreclosed.
In 1997, a USDA Civil Rights Team found the agency's system for handling civil rights complaints was still in shambles [pdf]: the agency was disorganized, the process for handling complaints about program benefits was "a failure," and the process for handling employment discrimination claims was "untimely and unresponsive."
A follow-up report [pdf] by the GAO in 1999 found 44 percent of program discrimination cases, and 64 percent of employment discrimination cases, had been backclogged for over a year.
TAKING USDA DISCRIMINATION TO COURT
It was against this backdrop that in 1997, a group of black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. In all 22,000 farmers were granted access to the lawsuit, and in 1999 the government admitted wrongdoing and agreed to a $2.3 billion settlement -- the largest civil rights settlement in history.
But African-American farmers had misgivings with the Pigford settlement. For one, only farmers discriminated against between 1981 and 1996 could join the lawsuit. Second, the settlement forced farmers to take one of two options: Track A, to receive an immediate $50,000 cash payout, or Track B, the promise of a larger amount if more extensive documentation was provided -- a challenge given that many farmers didn't keep records.
Many farmers who joined the lawsuit were also denied payment: By one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. The Bush Department of Justice spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers' claims; many farmers feel their cases were dismissed on technicalities.
Labels: institutionalized racism