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African-American farmers win compensation

Published Jun 16, 2011 9:17 PM

African-American farmers have received a settlement notice in the legal process of resolving the so-called Pigford II discrimination case that found the U.S. Department of Agriculture guilty of institutional racism. Tens of thousands of African-American farmers were represented in a class action suit that charged discrimination by the federal agency between 1981 and 1996.

A previous settlement known as Pigford I left thousands of farmers uncompensated as a result of government bureaucracy and court guidelines that restricted participation. The Pigford II case was designed to correct the previous shortcomings in the initial settlement announced in 1999.

According to a press release issued June 6 by the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Fund, “African-American farmers around the country who tried to file a claim in the 1999 Pigford Settlement but were unable to receive a decision on the merits because their claims were late are now receiving information about their legal rights and options under the Settlement.”

The settlement was approved by the U.S. Senate for $2.2 billion in December. The process had been held up in Congress for more than a year.

The deadline for filing a claim for compensation may expire as early as Feb. 28, 2012. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that if claimants do not file paperwork by this time, they could forfeit their claim and the right to sue at a later date. Plaintiffs must agree in the process to either accept the award or contest the amount and conditions.

African-American farmers have suffered from discrimination and racism since the conclusion of the Civil War, which ended slavery. This settlement can by no means repair the damage done over centuries of national oppression and exploitation. The plight of African-American farmers stems from the failure of the Civil War and Reconstruction to equitably distribute land and resources to the 4 million freed slaves.

Despite the refusal of the federal government to grant land and livestock to African-American farmers in the post-slavery South, Black people were able to acquire 15 million acres of land by 1910. A process of disenfranchisement and state-sanctioned racist terror, however, brought about the loss of more than 13 million acres within the last century.

The gradual industrialization of the South during the latter 20th century displaced many more African Americans from farms and other rural areas. The relatively small group of farmers remaining took collective action during the 1990s and revived the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement of a previous generation.

Other oppressed farmers to be compensated

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s sparked similar efforts among other oppressed groups, including Latinos/as, Asians, Native Americans, women, lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer communities, seniors, youth and people with disabilities. The current struggle of African-American farmers has brought attention to the situation involving Native, women and Chicano/a farmers.

Both Latino/a and women farmers are mandated to share a settlement based on discrimination complaints. In California some Mexican-American farmers were angered by the federal government’s announcement of a settlement allocation of only $1.3 million.

Both Latino/a and women farmers can reportedly receive up to $50,000 if they can show evidence of systematic discrimination by the USDA. The disparity between settlements for African-American farmers and Latino/a and women farmers has generated controversy and anger.

Fred Pfaeffle, the USDA’s deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, held a meeting June 8 with community leaders to discuss the program at Fresno’s campus of California State University. According to Pfaeffle, “It was a little contentious. But I welcome the opportunity to hear criticism of the program firsthand.” (Fresno Bee, June 11)

Fresno County farmer Joe Rascon said, “They are trying to wave a carrot in front of us, and some of us aren’t having it. The USDA has already admitted wrongful acts, and now they are not being fair or consistent.”

The USDA’s Agriculture Census says there are 41,024 Black, 82,464 Latino/a and 1 million women farmers. Considering these numbers, the settlement for all affected groups seems inadequate.

In April a judge approved a settlement for Native-American farmers of $680 million. Under the plan, if farmers qualify, they can receive up to $250,000 in compensation.