Black farmers’ lawsuit: Justice delayed is justice denied

By on June 21, 2013

African-American farmers won a landmark lawsuit in 1999 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for racist discrimination in Pigford v. Glickman.  In 2011, a federal court approved a second settlement for additional claimants, but no payouts have been issued.   Vicious attacks have been leveled against these and other historic settlements — and the farmers who won them – against USDA discrimination.

An April 25 New York Times article by Sharon LaFraniere entitled, “U.S. Opens Spigot after Farmers Claim Discrimination,” sparked an immediate outcry challenging the writer’s accusations.  She asserted that Black farmers’ racial discrimination lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the government’s settlements led thousands of Latinos and Latinas and other women — who hadn’t even claimed bias, says the author — to “clamor” in courtrooms and in Congress “for the same deal.”

LaFraniere alleged widespread fraud, stating the claims process’s design encouraged people to lie, because few records remained to verify farmers’ actions.  Further, she said that claimants were not required to present documentary evidence of their unfair treatment or that they had even tried to farm.

The Times criticized the Black farmer victims of discrimination and USDA officials who attempted to correct decades of injustice.  The article stated that the settlement payouts have become “a runaway train, driven by racial politics and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees.”  It viciously alleged that some claimants forged documents, and that settlement payouts were made without assessing each claim’s validity.

Before the second settlement to African-American farmers was approved in 2011, conservative politicians and media targeted it.  Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann and Steven King called the settlement a waste of federal money.  King said it was “paid out in fraudulent claims.” (Huffington Post, Oct. 28, 2011)

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart maliciously alleged the settlement was “one of the largest, most blatant frauds in American history,” at BigGovernment.com.  In July 2010, this racist pundit posted video excerpts that led the Obama administration to immediately force the resignation of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA-appointed Georgia state director of rural development.  The videos were quickly discredited.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that efforts to make the compensation payments usher in “a new chapter of civil rights at USDA,” where “we celebrate diversity instead of discriminate against it.” (New York Times, April 25)  The USDA acknowledges pervasive discrimination, said Vilsack, who explained that the settlement provides farmers who have evidence of it the chance to obtain appropriate relief.

Vilsack stressed that the resolutions in Pigford v. Glickman were not only responsible, fair and consistent with the law; they were the right thing to do. The compensation was meant to redress what the federal government and the courts agreed was a painful legacy of USDA bias against African Americans.  The agency says the claims process’s requirements help ensure that compensation funds go only to those who deserve them, and that payments were carefully controlled and fully justified.

Black farmers rebut New York Times   

The National Black Farmers Association, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land, the Black Belt Justice Center and other advocacy groups rebutted the Times article, and defended the USDA settlements.

NBFA President John W. Boyd Jr. says of the Times article, “Insinuating that the Black farmers’ case seeded, encouraged, or inspired fraud is a low blow.”  (Huffington Post, May 2)   Every day Boyd’s office gets complaints from farmers.  Many had given up hope that the settlement funds would ever come through. Boyd says the money will make a difference in their lives, but they will not get their farms back.

A disproportionate number of Black farmers lost their farms during the past 90 years. Their advocates say that if the USDA had provided loans and other assistance to every farmer equally, the country’s landscape would look very different.  They also connect criticism of the settlement to long-standing discrimination against the Black farming community and right-wing resistance to correcting historical wrongs.

For more than a century, African Americans were excluded from being recipients of federal farm legislation that provided swaths of land to white farmers, solidifying their domination of the country’s land and natural resources.  The Times did not consider the African-American farmers’ plight and their right to receive a semblance of justice after decades of discrimination by the USDA and its staff.

Critics of the Times’ article state that it omits the historical context of rampant USDA discrimination in rural areas, and excludes the decades of studies by the Commission on Civil Rights, and the USDA itself, which confirm discrimination against Black farmers. Countless Black farmers worked diligently on their farms, only to see USDA county supervisors trash their loan applications in front of them.

The Times article’s focus on “fraud” invokes familiar racial stereotypes of “undeserving  opportunists.”  It questions the payouts, instead of explaining why they were ordered in the first place.  LaFraniere criticized Black farmers who have been victimized, instead of aiming at the USDA’s history of corrupt, bigoted policies.  The farmers’ supporters say that her writing underplays the history of racial dispossession, and creates needless antipathy to both the lawsuit and the settlement with Black farmers, who were devastated by denial of credit and benefits.

Those rebutting the article detail the stringent system set up to qualify those who would receive a settlement.  Under penalty of perjury, claimants had to prove bias and identify situations where white farmers received more favorable treatment.

Black farmers’ advocates point to the USDA’s discrimination against them since the 1930s when the farm programs began, during the 1960s when agency staff kept loans from Black farmers in retaliation for civil rights activism, and in the 1980s and early 1990s. USDA staff members were supposed to assist farmers with their agricultural needs and concerns.  The Times’ article omitted reports on USDA staff violations of government regulations and policies; instead, it criticized the Black farmer victims and those who attempted to correct the injustices.

Historic lawsuits vs. USDA

In 1997, Timothy Pigford, along with 400 other African-American farmers, filed a federal lawsuit against then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.  It alleged racial discrimination in the USDA’s allocation of farm loans, disaster payments and assistance, and claimed that the agency failed to process racial discrimination complaints.  The case covers a 16-year period during which 125,000 African Americans farmed at some time.

In April 1999, federal Judge Paul Friedman issued a consent decree in the class action suit.  It stated that eligible recipients were African Americans who farmed or attempted to farm between 1981 and 1996, applied for farm credit or program benefits and believed they were victims of racial discrimination. They must have filed a complaint against the USDA by July 1, 1997.

The settlement provided $50,000 to each plaintiff; it forgave loans and offset tax liability. The claimants had to present substantial evidence of racial discrimination and show that the USDA’s treatment of their loan application led to economic damage.  By the end of 2011, $1.1 billion had been paid out to 16,000 claimants.

The 2008 Farm Bill provided $100 million for additional claims, as 70,000 Black farmers filed late.  In December 2010, Congress passed the Claims Resolution Act, which appropriated $1.15 billion more to compensate them through the “Pigford II” settlement.  In late 2011, Judge Friedman approved the second round of payments for late filing farmers who were not initially awarded payments; he stated funds would be dispersed after claims were reviewed.

The 2010 congressional act also allocated $3.4 billion to Native people to redress past governmental discrimination.  Moreover, that year, Native farmers won $760 million in Keepseagle v. Vilsack for compensation for USDA denial of farm loans.

For years, Latino, Latina and other women farmers argued that biased federal loan officers had also systematically thwarted their attempts to borrow money to farm. In 2011, the USDA allocated $1.33 billion for these farmers and ranchers who’d faced discrimination from 1981 to 2000.  Denied class-action status, individuals must have submitted claims by May 1.

There have been no awards distributed since the “Pigford II” settlement approval. An 81-year-old woman farm owner in Evergreen, Ill., awaits compensation.  It has been two-and-a-half years since President Barack Obama signed a law compensating Black farmers, but they haven’t been paid.  They are fed up with having to wait so long for their settlement, and then even longer for their compensation.

African Americans now make up only about 1 percent of the country’s farmers and ranchers, says the USDA.  In 1920, they made up 14 percent of farmers. The Census of Agriculture says that the number of Black farmers declined from 925,000 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1992. Farms were foreclosed and many were forced out of farming. Other farmers were humiliated and degraded by county supervisors, and forced to stand by powerless as white farmers received preferential treatment.

These farmers have fought long and hard. They deserve justice now.

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