September 7, 2010

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled a federal discrimination case filed by black farmers. The government had promised $1.25 billion to be paid out in sums of up to $50,000 for qualified farmers, but the Senate has since refused to fund the settlement. So farmers who thought they had settled their case have not. This week, they protested in front of the Department of Agriculture.

The original lawsuit, called Pigford I, claimed that farmers were being denied farm loans and crop supports because they were black. The suit represented 15,000 to 20,000 black farmers. The applications were evaluated by county committees.

The lawsuit pointed out that, “Nationwide, only 37 county commissioners were African American out of a total of 8147 commissioners.” It went on to say that, sometimes, it was not just an outright denial of an application: “In several southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer.”

NPR provided additional background:

“In 1997 Pigford I, the first USDA settlement, provided 13,000 farmers with $50,000 each and debt relief. Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer, and 400 other African Americans had filed a class-action suit against the USDA, alleging bias in allocation of farm loans and assistance. For decades their complaints were ignored or got a slow response. Pigford II occurred after the USDA admitted that thousands of other black farmers’ claims from the 1990s went uninvestigated.

“John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, says that bills to fund the settlement have failed seven times in the Senate, and a black-farmer attachment was taken out of the recent farm-aid disaster bill. ‘We have been working on our restitution for 26 years,’ Boyd says.”

The lawsuit tells a few stories to illustrates how black farmers were treated:

“Mr. Calvin Brown from Brunswick County, Virginia applied in January 1984 for an operating loan for that planting season. When he inquired later that month about the status of his loan application, a FmHA county supervisor told him that the application was being processed. The next month, the same FmHA county supervisor told him that there was no record of his application ever having been filed and that Mr. Brown had to reapply. By the time Mr. Brown finally received his loan in May or June 1984, the planting season was over, and the loan was virtually useless to him. In addition, the funds were placed in a ‘supervised’ bank account, which required him to obtain the signature of a county supervisor before withdrawing any funds, a requirement frequently required of African American farmers but not routinely imposed on white farmers.

“In 1994, the entire county of Greene County, Alabama where Mr. George Hall farmed was declared eligible for disaster payments on 1994 crop losses. Every single application for disaster payments was approved by the Greene County Committee except Mr. Hall’s application for four of his crops.”

NPR says that despite this week’s protests and the fact that the government agreed to pay the settlement, it is difficult for senators to vote for anything that costs $1 billion these days:

“In August alone, Senate Republicans blocked the settlement twice. Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, asks, ‘Don’t these legislators in states suffering economically know the money will boost the income in their state?’

“Money is the fuel of politics. But with the November polls looming, senators who vote to give anyone more than $1 billion, even if it was agreed on long ago, worry that voting to pay the black farmers could cost them re-election.’ “

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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