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.


For more on the history of black farmers in America, you can read NPR’s story on John Ficara’s American Black Farmers Project.

Thanks for sharing

  1. Eddie Gehman Kohan
    Eddie Gehman Kohan05-11-2009

    Thanks for covering this crucially important issue, which has been largely ignored by mainstream media. It should be noted that unfortunately, finally settling the Pigford claims is dependent on President Obama’s 2010 budget winning approval on Capitol Hill. Any monies allocated for Pigford could well be dumped out of the final budget, in favor of other, more “pressing” financial issues. Also, an actual just settlement dollar figure should be closer to $2.7 billion, according to the National Black Farmers Association and the bevy of non-profit organizations that have been working on behalf of black farmers.

    Black farmers in the US are now primarily small, independent farmers–and they are farming in a way that is far more suited to a regional, sustainable agriculture system, and it’s a shame from that angle, too. Just today the National Black Farmers Association joined a lawsuit against Monsanto, over seed pre-emption issues.

    Lastly, in terms of money ill spent, USDA has channeled more money into fighting all its many discrimination lawsuits than settling long-outstanding claims. Secretary Vilsack and the Obama administration really do seem to want to change this, but at the moment, financially, it’s now up to the Congressional branch.