Most of the employees interviewed by a private consulting firm did not believe the department, sued over the years by blacks, Hispanic, American Indians and women, had a civil rights problem. Research by the Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group "substantiated in part the anecdotal claims of neglect, at best, and wide-spread discrimination, at worst" at the department.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack arranged for the $8 million review as part of his effort to address long-running problems, many involving minorities denied loans by department field offices staffed mostly by white men.
Discrimination was most acute at the Farm Service Agency, which is responsible for delivering farm loans and other programs to rural residents. The study noted that far fewer minorities participated in many programs than did whites, and found not enough effort to go into minority communities to market loans and services.
"Customers and potential customers stated that USDA policies and practices, often unintentionally, and sometimes purposely by 'bad actors,' result in the unfair treatment and denial of program access which have had a broad and longstanding negative impact," the report said.
Vilsack said the department has already put in place 94 of the report's 234 recommendations, which include better training for staff, increased outreach to minority communities and reducing some financial barriers for gaining loans.
Since he took over in 2009, Vilsack has focused on correcting civil rights problems, reviewing long-neglected complaints and settling lawsuits brought by the minority farmers. He calls it a "cultural transformation."
In the past two years, the Obama administration has settled a class-action suit brought by Indian farmers, offered payments to Hispanic and female farmers who alleged discrimination, and pushed for additional money for black farmers who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. The settlements will cost the government several billion dollars.
Vilsack said he learned from the study that the rural field offices must do more to connect with minorities who may be reluctant to ask for loans because of the department's history of discrimination. While those people who apply for loans in the offices may be treated fairly, he said, many don't even apply. He suggested that USDA may have to find a way to increase minority representation on the committees that make loan decisions.
"Because of the past, folks aren't anxious to go into the office," he said. "They think they are going to be turned away ... We have to break that barrier, make people feel more comfortable."
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, has represented black farmers who settled a discrimination case against the government in 1999. He said the administration deserves credit for some of their efforts but that the message hasn't trickled down to the "good old boy" network on rural committees that approve loans.
"For the department to get better and overcome this era of discrimination, the old-school employees and career bureaucrats need to take responsibility for what's happening at the department," Boyd said. "There is a trust factor between (minority farmers) and the USDA that they are not going to treat them fairly."
Vilsack ordered the report before the brouhaha involving a rural development administrator who was shown in an edited online video making what appeared to be racist remarks. Shirley Sherrod, who is black, was forced to resign, then quickly offered a new job in the civil rights department when it became clear that her comments were misunderstood. She has sued the conservative blogger who posted the video that led to her dismissal.
The secretary said he has stayed in touch with Sherrod and their discussions have given him new ideas on how to ease the civil rights strains.
"We're seeing progress because of that incident," he said.