Iowa Public Television


Black Farmers Still Looking for Justice

posted on May 1, 2009

Shortly after the Civil War ended, the federal government promised "forty acres and a mule" to thousands of newly freed slaves. But all was not necessarily "equal" in farm country.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal, thousands of black farmers contend they've been systematically denied federal loans and subsidies for decades. In 1999, they won a landmark civil rights settlement with USDA.

To this day though, thousands of the litigants say they've never received a penny of the record $2.3 billion legal remedy. While some were optimistic the current Farm Bill would address their plight, they now say new restrictions endorsed by the Obama Administration are discriminating against them all over again.

Black Farmers Still Looking for Justice

John Boyd, President – National Black Farmers Association: "Many of our forefathers experienced these problems over the decades. Discrimination, no farm loans, empty promises...forty acres and a mule..."

In yet another chapter of the decades-long struggle between black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, members of the National Black Farmers Association, or NBFA, protested in Washington this week. Led by outspoken NBFA President John Boyd, the demonstrators claim the federal government still has not satisfied the requirements of a landmark civil rights settlement.

African-American farmers filed suit against USDA in the 1990's, alleging racial discrimination by federal farm loan officers.

USDA settled with the plaintiffs in 1999, agreeing to pay a record $2.3 billion in damages. But subsequent independent investigations discovered an overwhelming number of applicants were denied any legal remedy as nearly 50,000 claimants were turned away.

Black farmers and USDA wrangled during much of Bush Administration until bipartisan legislation sponsored by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and then-Senator Barack Obama made its way into the 2008 farm bill.

Dr. John Boyd, President – NBFA: "This is not an anti-Obama rally. This is to say Mr. Busy President there are black farmers promised money in the farm bill. If we can pass a stimulus bill then we can pay the black farmers."

The legislation paved the way for thousands of black farmers to reapply for financial damages. But 100 days into the Obama Presidency, new legal maneuvers by the current Administration prompted Boyd to renew his call for swift government action.

Dr. John Boyd, President – NBFA: ""Is it too much for the large white farmers to get millions in a bad economy? People suddenly ask that about black farmers getting money and somehow that is about the economy."

The Obama Administration's move to cap all payments at $100 million comes after some estimates claim the figure could balloon to more than $1 billion without a limit. Across Washington at a House Appropriations Hearing, lawmakers probed whether new leadership at USDA was tackling civil rights issues properly.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-California: "Has GAO found during the course of its investigation that USDA is open to change?

Lisa Shames, Chief Investigator – GAO: "I do want to say that for underperforming organizations, it takes time to turn them around. Maybe 5 years or 7 years."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has publicly addressed the issue of discrimination during his short tenure in Washington – even directly admonishing USDA employees.

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: "We have been sued - repeatedly over the decades. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes resources, it doesn't have to be and it shouldn't be."

Dr. Joe Leonard, USDA Assistant Sec. of Civil Rights: "Since 1983, USDA has not had any investigators on the ground in these states and that is something we are looking at changing."

Despite USDA assurances of increased oversight, John Boyd and the National Black Farmers Association remain concerned that "change" has not come to Ag Department policy.

Dr. John Boyd: "If you want the news reports to end, then pay the farmers. I hope this is the last time I drag this mule up the road."

Tags: African Americans agriculture farmers justice news protests race racism USDA