A New Era for Civil Rights?
After only his first month in the Obama administration, newly-appointed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack delivered some unexpected words before a group from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) and the Land Assistance Fund:
“Some folks refer to USDA as the last plantation, and it has a pretty poor history of taking care of people of color.”
While some groups have criticized the statement as pandering, his admission was shocking to hear coming from the head of the USDA, particularly when backed up by what appears to be an earnest engagement in redressing past discrimination. As Ralph Paige, the Executive Director of the FSC wrote in AgWeek, “Throughout USDA’s long history from 1862 to 2009, we never have seen an agriculture secretary prioritize civil rights like this.” Even though federal government can often seem as slow as molasses when confronting these sorts of social issues, Secretary Vilsack has made civil rights one of the top priorities of his short time in office. At the end of April, Vilsack issued a memorandum detailing the new focus on civil rights for all USDA offices, and his recently-confirmed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Dr. Joe Leonard, Jr. has been widely praised as a good choice for the reinvigorated position.
While the scope of the USDA’s past discrimination is broad, the keystone issue from this century-plus of exclusionary practices is the settlement of the “Pigford Claims.” In 1999, the National Black Farmers Association helped to secure a monetary award in Pigford vs. Glickman for black farmers who suffered from racially-biased USDA lending practices. However, as Presidential food and policy blog Obama Foodorama notes, numerous farmers were left out of the original class action suit; at an April 28 protest, the NBFA unrolled a list of the 80,000 farmers who missed the original filing date and still deserve remuneration.
For the last 10 years, the NBFA has fought the USDA to re-open the Pigford claims for these remaining farmers, but has been stymied in all of their attempts. The 2008 Farm Bill seemed to offer the first hope for compensation, thanks to a group of senators (including then-Senator Obama) who championed a $100 million payment to some of the outstanding Pigford claims. Over the last week, Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., have proposed a bill that would increase the Farm Bill’s allocations, and, as reported by Obama Foodorama, the President’s latest budget proposal allocated $1.25 billion for black farmers. These actions are a long time coming for the many small farmers who have waited generations for justice. It’s not, however, the end of the story for the USDA, who still has pending suits concerning discrimination against women and other minority farmers. It will be interesting to see how Secretary Vilsack’s USDA puts its ideals into practice and whether they continue to address civil rights in a meaningful way.
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