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Will the Tea Party Congress Block Justice for Black Farmers?

In November 2010 Congress finally passed a bill that would appropriate monies for the lawsuit filed by blacks against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It was a long time coming.  The passage was not without conflict in the Senate and critics in the House of Representatives but also importantly coupled with the support of the Obama administration and countless other representatives and senators who prevailed in the vote. With the advent of a House of Representatives controlled by conservative Republicans, however, concerns are now raised about the implementation of the lawsuit.

The class action lawsuit was originally filed in 1997. It is now called Pigford v Vilsack (after Tim Pigford, a Black farmer in North Carolina, and Tom Vilsack, Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture). The suit was against the USDA because of decades of ruthless discrimination against black farmers, including those who were attempting to farm, by staff in the USDA offices throughout the country.

The funding recently approved by Congress is for a follow-up lawsuit generated by the inadequacies of the original settlement of the Pigford lawsuit. The follow-up lawsuit (hereinafter referred to as “Pigford II”) is for individuals who filed “late” petitions in the Pigford settlement under authority granted by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Judge Paul Friedman provided the opportunity for farmers throughout the country who had not heard about the settlement in time to file a claim within the original deadline of October 12, 1999, to submit petitions explaining why they missed the deadline. Friedman gave them until September 15, 2000 to do so.

To prevail as a claimant in the lawsuit, the individual had to attest to three major criteria: (1) that he or she is a black farmer; (2) Indicate that he or she did seek assistance from the USDA (a loan or other kind of assistance) in the period 1981 to 1996 but was denied the assistance, and believed that the denial was discriminatory; and (3) Indicate that he or she filed a formal complaint with the USDA, attended a USDA listening session or similar meeting, or complained to some government official in his or her community that he or she had experienced this discrimination when attempting to receive a service from the USDA.

Another critical element for each claim was that the claimant had to provide the name of a “similarly situated white farmer”, in his or her community or county, who received the same type of loan or service from the USDA that the claimant was denied.The name of a “similarly situated white farmer” will not be required in Pigford II, but the three qualifying criteria remain and the claimant will have to show that he or she petitioned to file a late claim under the original Pigford settlement.

Like the original settlement, Pigford II has two tracks ? A and B. Track A is for those who do not have significant records of the discrimination they experienced and Track B for those who do.  Depending on whether sufficient funds are available, Track A claimants who prevail receive $50,000 plus other benefits such as debt relief, if the debt was related to the discrimination. Track B claimants can receive payment for actual damage they suffered up to $250,000.

In the original Pigford settlement, by 1999, 22,551 individuals were eligible claimants in Track A. There were 170 Track B eligible claimants. To date there has been a total of $1,012,079,871 in relief for Track A claimants.

In Pigford II, approximately 65,989 individuals filed petitions to file late claims in the original settlement. Of those only 3  per cent (2,260) were found eligible to file a claim in Pigford ? the reasons for why they missed the original deadline were accepted such as being in the hospital, struggling with the impact of a hurricane etc. This leaves a staggering 63,870 (97 per cent of late claimants; and over 75 per cent of all claimants) individuals who were denied the opportunity to file a claim in the Pigford lawsuit. As these thousands of individuals have not been able to file their claims, the number of those who might be eligible claimants is not yet known.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, largely thanks to the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress included a provision that offered the opportunity for these late petitioners to file their claims and Congress has now finally provided  $1.25 billion dollars for their relief. Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) and Senators Harry Reid (D-NE) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) stand out for their exceptional leadership in the House and Senate for helping to get the funding bill passed.

The reasons for the Pigford lawsuits being filed are compelling, profound and sad. As the late attorney J.L. Chestnut and former class counsel of the Pigford lawsuit said once, “There is perhaps nothing like having your own government discriminate against you.”

The USDA’s farm loan program began decades ago in response to the needs of small farmers suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. It is considered the lending institution of last resort for farmers who are not able to get credit elsewhere. The USDA provides information about its programs and applications for credit in just about every county in the country. Yet, since its inception in virtually every county the USDA staff has discriminated again black farmers and women. This has resulted over the decades in individuals losing their land, losing their livelihood and lost opportunities overall.

Some of the most egregious examples of discrimination include blacks, as taxpayers it should be said, (1) not being provided information or applications at USDA offices about farm programs or loans available through the USDA? this includes not being able to even meet with USDA staff to inquire about the USDA programs, having special days for blacks in USDA offices where no information or assistance is provided and being treated disrespectfully; (2) not receiving even consideration of loans from the USDA for crop production or land ownership even if they have been applied for ? sometimes having their applications thrown in the garbage by USDA managers right in front of the black applicant, or the managers not sending the application for farm loans to the USDA county committee for consideration; (3) receiving loan money too late to plant a crop.

The period for claimants to cite the discrimination they experienced is between 1981 and 1996. The reason being because this time period roughly encompasses the years after President Ronald Reagan’s USDA abolished its Office of Civil Rights but before the Clinton administration reinstated the office.

So thanks to the Reagan administration, when individuals sent in complaints to the USDA about the egregious treatment they had received in their agency’s offices, there was no one to consider the problems or attempt to resolve them. Thousands of complaints gathered dust in boxes at the USDA. The Farmers Legal Action Group and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund filed suit against the USDA in the early 1990’s to obtain access to those complaints. They prevailed.

Then Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, ultimately held listening sessions across the country in the 1990’s to hear from farmers about their problems with USDA. This was after he heard numerous complaints from black farm groups such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the National Black Farmers Association and individuals such as farmer Tim Pigford.

Hundreds of individuals came before the Secretary to share their experiences of discrimination. As a result, the Pigford lawsuit was filed and settled. Glickman stated that under his watch the USDA would end its role as a plantation. All indications are that this hasn’t happened yet. (In fact, while black farmers led the way, there are now lawsuits against the USDA by women, Latino and Native American farmers.)

In the meantime, George Bush became president as the Pigford lawsuit proceeded and claims were processed. And while the Office of Civil Rights remained in place under Bush, it was when Obama became president that we learned from Secretary Vilsack’s office and Director of the Office of Civil Rights, Dr. Joe Leonard that some 14,000 complaints were sent to USDA during the Bush years of which only 2 were settled. Secretary Vilsack’s office is now looking into all those complaints. (The problem is that there is a two-year statute of limitation on resolving complaints and Congress would have to lift the statute on these complaints as it did for the original Pigford lawsuit.)

There have been comments decrying the vitriolic statements and divisiveness in the country after the assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. As efforts were being made to fund the Pigford II, this same kind of vitriol and insinuating comments were made by some in Congress against blacks in the original Pigford settlement and those applying as late filers.

One, by Representative Stephen King of Iowa, was that if there has been so much discrimination then why hasn’t anyone at USDA been fired because of this. Many in agriculture have asked the same question. Why has no one been fired for his or her discriminatory behavior? In fact, it appears that the only person fired from USDA for anything remotely related to racism was Shirley Sherrod in 2010 who was, in fact, attempting to address the problems of racism within rural communities and at the USDA.

Regarding the lack of repercussions for racist behavior, those at USDA have told us that the Bush administration had a no-fault policy regarding USDA staff. If someone on staff was accused of discrimination all they had to do was sign a paper excusing themselves. We are also told that Obama’s USDA will change this policy. We do not yet know what the policy will be.

Representatives Stephen King and Michelle Bachman, the darlings of the Tea Party, also claimed massive fraud in the original Pigford lawsuit. There is absolutely nothing to substantiate this. If anything, the lawsuit has been managed exceptionally well. Secretary Vilsack has stated, in his review, that according to his findings only 10 out of the thousands of claimants might be questionable and even those findings or questions about the 10 are not substantiated.

Nevertheless, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Mike Johanns (R-NE), to name a few, insisted that the bill that recently passed Congress require even more stringent oversight and audits of the claims process than has been the case in the past or in any of the other lawsuits filed against the USDA ? most of which are not overseen by Congress but are working their way through the courts. Johanns, it must be noted that, was one of George W. Bush’s Agriculture Secretaries.

One wonder if some in Congress are attempting to punish black farmers who have led the way in demanding justice and fairness from their own government. Nevertheless, it also needs to be stressed that while the black community has always played a leading role in seeking justice, others have always followed in their footsteps as we are now seeing with the numerous lawsuits filed against the USDA. This echoes the civil rights movement in the 1960’s when the black community led the way in demanding civil rights that was followed by almost every discriminated group in the country.

It needs to be stressed further that everyone benefits when injustices are exposed and especially when they are resolved. This is democracy at its core. As Martin Luther King wisely stated in his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963 “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net

 

 

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Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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