The Real Story of Racism at the USDA

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.

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 practices.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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:

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.


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.


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]:

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

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