The real story of racism at the USDA
By Chris Kromm
Facing South - A New Voice for a Changing South The Online
Magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies
July 22, 2010
Right now, if you do a web search of the words "racism" and
"USDA," the majority of links will steer you to coverage of
this week's Shirley Sherrod affair, in which the African-
American U.S. Department of Agriculture staffer based in
Georgia resigned after a conservative website reversed the
meaning of a speech she gave last year to imply she would
deny farm loans to whites.
It's an astonishing development given the history of race
relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on
Small Farms admitted in 1998 that "the history of
discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is
well-documented" -- not against white farmers, but African-
American, Native American and other minorities who were
pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and
It's also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of
Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for
the USDA's checkered past, including pushing for funding of a
historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands
of African American farmers but now faces bitter resistance
from Senate Republicans.
FORCED OFF THE LAND
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
THE POLITICS BEHIND THE SHERROD AFFAIR
Shortly after coming into office, President Obama and his
chief at the Department of Agriculture, Iowa's Tom Vilsack,
signaled a change in direction at USDA. Vilsack declared "A
New Civil Rights Era at USDA," and stepped-up handling of
civil rights claims in the agency.
This year, Vilsack and the USDA also responded to concerns
over handling of the Pigford case, agreeing to a historic
second settlement -- known as Pigford II -- in April that
would deliver another $1.25 billion to farmers who were
excluded from the first case. As Vilsack declared:
We have worked hard to address USDA's checkered past so
we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed.
The agreement reached today is an important milestone in
putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good.
But the Pigford II case was very much still alive when right-
wing media outlets went after Shirley Sherrod this week.
Sherrod herself had received $150,000 from the USDA last year
as part of the original Pigford lawsuit, which has been
bitterly opposed by Republicans and conservative media.
The settlement is also now a major political battle in
Congress: President Obama had put aside $1.15 billion in May
to cover Pigford II cases, which the House later approved.
But Republicans stripped the money out of their bills,
leaving the supplemental spending now being debated in the
Senate as the final option to appropriate the funding.
Given the stakes of the Pigford II decision -- which again
affirms the present-day consequences of decades of racial
discrimination -- and the sharp partisan battle over spending
in Congress, black farmer advocates don't think the attacks
on Sherrod this week are a coincidence.
And given the history of racial discrimination at USDA, they
can't help but note the hypocrisy. As Gary Grant, president
of the 20,000-strong Black Farmers & Agriculturalists
Association, said in a statement [pdf]:
The statement from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture,
that USDA does not "tolerate" racial discrimination is a
complete lie. Talk to almost any family member of a black
farmer or check out ... the government's documentation of
how USDA employees, on the local and federal level
discriminated against black farmers, in particular. And
nothing was ever done to penalize the all white officials
bent on destroying a society of black farmers across the
nation: not one firing, not one charge brought, and not
one pension lost. Yet at the first erroneous offering by
a conservative blogger that a black woman from USDA might
have discriminated, she is immediately forced to resign.
Which begs the question: Where was the Republican and
conservative concern over USDA "racism" before this week's
swiftboating of Shirley Sherrod?
[Chris Kromm is Executive Director; Publisher, Facing South
and Southern Exposure Chris joined the staff of the Institute
and Southern Exposure in May 1997. From 1997 to 2000, he was
the editor of Southern Exposure magazine, the Institute's
award-winning journal of politics and culture. He was
appointed Executive Director in 2000. He is also publisher of
Facing South, the Institute's popular online publication, and
A frequently-sought commentator on Southern politics and
current issues, Chris has appeared on over 250 TV and radio
broadcasts including American Public Media's "Marketplace,"
CNN "Live," C-SPAN, Democracy Now, KCRW California's "To the
Point," Mississippi Public Radio, NPR's "All Things
Considered," Pacifica Radio, WUNC North Carolina's "The State
of Things" and XM Satellite Radio. Kromm's writing and
reporting have also appeared in The Durham Herald-Sun, The
Hill, The Huffington Post, The Independent Weekly, The
Journal of Environmental Education, The Nation, The Raleigh
News & Observer, Salon and other publications.]
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