Iowa Public Television


Black Farmers Pressure USDA on Civil Rights Issues

posted on September 24, 2004

Litigation between the government and its citizenry is a two-way street.

Earlier this month, black farmers sued the government ... again. The latest lawsuit seeks $20.5 billion and class-action status for 25,000 blacks who farmed or attempted to farm between 1997 and 2004. The suit alleges USDA is retaliating against farmers who collected payments under a 1999 lawsuit settlement.

While withholding comment on pending litigation, USDA claims its civil rights record under the Bush administration is exemplary. But thousands of black farmers expected to rally in Washington later this month would disagree.

Black Farmers Pressure USDA on Civil Rights Issues Claiming they've been systematically denied federal loans and subsidies for decades, several of the nation's black farm groups banded together this week to fight what they claim is discrimination by the federal government.

The newly formed Congress of Black Farmer Organizations alleges the Agriculture Department has failed to abide by a sweeping civil rights case settled five years ago. The $2.3 billion accord is the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.

But a study released in July revealed the vast majority of the 96,000 black farmers seeking restitution under the 1999 settlement were rejected. The two-year study was conducted by the Environmental Working Group and the Black Farmers Association. It concluded that USDA treated farmers as legal adversaries by contracting with US Department of Justice lawyers, who spent at least 56,000 staff hours and $12 million contesting individual farmer claims.

Of the 96,000 black farmers seeking relief under the settlement, 81 percent were denied any legal remedy.

But USDA is not totally to blame. About 72,000 claims were denied not because of any USDA decision but because the applications were filed late. The decision not to reject late applications was made by an independent arbitrator and NOT by the government. Of those who met the initial decision, more than 60 percent have received compensation.

Last July, the Justice Department blasted the Environmental Working Group report concluding that it was replete with demonstrably false statements.

Tags: African Americans agriculture civil rights farmers government news race USDA