Too Little, Too Late for Black Farmers

It's not the 40 acres and a mule once promised to black freedmen, but the recent ruling requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to African-American farmers could result in the largest compensatory settlement for racial bias in U.S. history. But because of their tragic history, even such a large settlement is too little, too late for the diminishing numbers of blacks who still farm for a living.U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman made his Jan. 5 ruling to settle a 1997 class-action lawsuit that charged the USDA with racial discrimination in parceling out farm loans and subsidies. Initiated by 1,000 black farmers, the suit covers claims from 1981-the year the Reagan administration began dismantling USDA's Office of Civil Rights-to 1996, when the Clinton administration restored it. Total claims are estimated to exceed $375 million, but the figure is impossible to calculate until officials have a better idea of the number of affected farmers. Alexander Pires, an attorney for the plaintiffs, expects about 5,000 farmers to seek the settlement. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says the unprecedented agreement "will close a painful chapter in USDA history." Indeed, the 16-year period covered by the suit was characterized by official indifference to black farmers' unique plight, but crippling racial biases have stymied African-American's agricultural ambitions from the nation's very beginning. Still, the ruling is historic as the first time the federal government has conceded its actions were discriminatory and agreed to compensate blacks as victims of that discrimination."There's no doubt that the settlement was a national victory and a form of vindication for black farmers," says John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association and a Virginia poultry farmer. "In fact, I see it as an overall victory for black people in general." But, Boyd adds, "the amount of money is peanuts and does little to really rectify the systemic injustice at the Agriculture Department." The lawsuit initially had sought $3.5 billion. Boyd himself has been denied USDA loans nine times.The vast majority of African-American farmers are in the South and the region's tradition of Jim Crow segregation has excluded blacks from private credit markets. Thus, black farmers are disproportionately dependent on USDA loans to stay afloat. As a result, many have sunk and others are sinking.In 1920, 14 percent of American farmers were black. Since then, Boyd says, blacks have left farming at five times the rate of whites. By 1992, the number of black farmers had dwindled to 18,816-less than 1 percent of the nation's farmers. According to preliminary figures from the Census Bureau, the current percentage is even lower: Of the 1.4 million people who operated or managed farms in the U.S. in 1995, just 8,000 were black. For the past three decades, black farmers have blamed USDA discrimination in loan disbursements for the decline in black-owned farms. Deficit financing is the primary fuel of farming. Loans are granted to farmers based on their next crop to cover their operating expenses. If farmers cannot obtain capital in a timely fashion, they face ruin.The USDA is the lender of last resort for those who lack access to private financing. According to Boyd, black farmers have complained primarily that the USDA provides loans to white farmers at lower interest rates than to blacks, grants loans to blacks later in the crop season than whites and often shelves black farmers' loan applications altogether or falsifies the data on them. The major problem was that the Farm Service Agency-the lending arm of the USDA-was decentralized and its 2,500 local offices were manned by local farmers who were overwhelmingly white. Loan recommendations also were handled by local farmers committees that tended to exclude black participation, particularly in the South.In 1970, a USDA investigation first concluded that the agency was insensitive to civil rights and rife with nepotism and cronyism. A decade later, a 1982 study by the agency's Civil Rights Commission dramatically predicted that black farmers would be extinct by 2000 unless the federal government placed "adequate emphasis on dealing with the crisis." A year later, a task force report found that local USDA officials were "rude and insensitive to black farmers," that their projected crop yields were calculated differently from those of white farmers, and that blacks were sometimes rejected because of "computation errors."Even in the face of those damning conclusions, little was done to reform the agency. A 1990 House committee report found that minority farmers had lost significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of USDA discrimination. The National Black Farmers Association filed its suit against the government in 1997, shortly after yet another internal USDA probe found evidence of "bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness and indifference" to black farmers applying for loans. That year, an internal civil rights task force discovered so many problems that it urged the agency to implement 92 specific recommendations to help alleviate them.The settlement doesn't refer to the recommendations, but Boyd says institutional changes in the agency are essential for the USDA to operate free of bias in the future. "The one thing I'm distressed about is that Secretary Glickman has not terminated any of those high officials who allowed this kind of discrimination against black farmers to persist," Boyd adds. "Now you have a lawsuit that's going to cost taxpayers millions and millions of dollars, and it just seems to me that somebody should be held accountable."Glickman says civil service rules have prevented him from disciplining current employees who participated in or supervised discriminatory practices. But late last year, the USDA did alter policies for staffing local offices and tighten oversight of the farm loan operations.Boyd generally gives high marks to Glickman. "He inherited an agency with a horrendous history of racism and anti-black sentiments and has really done a lot to help change it," he says. "The department still has problems, but at least it seems to be heading in the right direction."But some black farmers fear the settlement will divert attention from the serious problems that still remain at the USDA. The department remains the focus of many other lawsuits alleging discrimination against minority and female employees in job and training opportunities. The USDA long has been ridiculed as America's "last plantation," and the segregationist sentiments that dominated the agency for most of its 137-year history have been difficult to eliminate. The USDA's Coalition of Minority Employees has accused the 90,000-person agency of widespread racial discrimination and insists that there have been only minor changes during Glickman's tenure.The modest amounts shaken loose in the recent ruling won't relieve the debt burden of many black farmers. The settlement covers only farmers with complaints of discrimination that occurred between 1983 and 1997 and offers them three options. Most of the farmers are expected to accept a simple provision that would grant them tax-free payments of $50,000 each and forgive their federal debts. J.L. Chestnut, one of the attorneys representing the black farmers, told the Washington Post that most debts ranged between $75,000 and $150,000.Farmers with more documented evidence of discrimination can opt to have their cases settled by a court-appointed arbitrator and seek larger damages. Farmers also may choose to exclude themselves from the settlement and have their cases settled administratively within the USDA. In addition to cash payments and debt forgiveness, all claimants will be given priority on future government loans and may have foreclosed farmland returned to them if it is still owned by the federal government. "One of our biggest issues was getting the land back for farmers that were wronged," Boyd says. "So the provision for the return of foreclosed land was a huge victory." But Judge Friedman's ruling does not free black farmers from the commercial debt burden they assumed while denied access to government money. Charles Dennard, a farmer in Pineview, Ga., told the New York Times that he has accumulated $88,000 in debt to private lenders who are pressuring him to foreclose. Had he been granted the USDA loans he initially sought, he would not have incurred so much debt."The settlement is significant and historic, but it in no way restores the economic impact of millions of acres lost to the black community because of discrimination," says Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a 30-year-old organization that assists black farmers in the South with expertise in farm management. Still, Paige adds, it "could be the beginning of a much needed healing process, which would then hopefully lead the nation and the government to addressing the countless systemic problems within the USDA and American agriculture generally."The settlement of the black farmers' suit may pave the way for a more extensive claim by African-Americans to reparations for a history of racial bias by other government agencies. Legislation introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) annually since 1989 calls for a study of how slavery and a century of official apartheid affected African-Americans. The Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act languishes in Congress each time it is reintroduced."I really don't see any differences between the argument of the black farmers who sued for compensation from past discrimination and our argument for reparations for all descendants of former slaves," says Robert Starks, associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. "We've been making the argument for years that clear evidence of governmental racism has directly impeded our progress as a people. The black farmers made that same argument, and the Agriculture Department seems to agree with them."Starks has a point. The logic that justified the USDA settlement-compensation is necessary to redress economic inequities rooted in a history of racial exclusion-also makes the case for more widespread reparations. In fact, reparations are not just logical, they also could soothe public tensions provoked by issues like affirmative action and other programs of racial preferences. However, the political climate has been unremittingly hostile to the case for reparations since President Andrew Johnson vetoed 40-acres-and-a-mule legislation 133 years ago. If the recent settlement to black farmers doesn't mark the beginning of a change in that attitude, at least it offers a fruitful legal strategy.This article originally appeared in In These Times.


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