USDA Payments to Minority Farmers: Fair or Full of Fraud?

From colonial days up to the present, American agriculture, especially in the South, has been built on the backs of people of color. Sadly, even years after slavery’s end, the experience of many black farmers has continued to be a struggle. One of the more recent examples of this is the alleged discrimination against hundreds of African-American farmers by the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many black farmers report repeatedly being denied various farm credits or other benefits by the USDA between 1981 and 1997—denials many claim were because of their race. In 1997, farmer Timothy Pigford, along with more than 400 plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the department, alleging that the USDA treated black farmers unfairly when deciding to allocate price support loans, disaster payments, “farm ownership” loans, and operating loans, and that the USDA had failed to process subsequent complaints about racial discrimination.



In 1999, Pigford v. Glickman was settled, and the federal government began to disburse settlement money to farmers it discriminated against. Soon, the number of claims surpassed all estimates, and the government found itself embroiled in the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history—or, as some have it, a massive case of fraud. To date, more than 90,000 people have filed claims, and they aren’t just African-Americans: Hispanic, female and Native American farmers have also claimed they were discriminated against by the 1980s. When all’s said and done, disbursements to farmers could top $4.4 billion, according to a recently published report in The New York Times.

That Times report caused a furor among agriculture and farmer rights organizations, which say the reporter all but ignored very real and documented abuses at the agency, and instead focused on alleged fraud in the settlement payouts. The story reports on supposedly fraudulent claimants, references “career lawyers and agency officials who…argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination,” and even accuses the USDA under President Barack Obama of sloppily handling the settlement money.

But advocacy groups and the USDA fired back, accusing the Times of ignoring the long train of evidence of discrimination documented in USDA records at the National Archives and in the records of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, National Sharecroppers Fund, and the NAACP, among others. Historian Pete Daniel, who wrote a book about the struggles of African-American farmers, took issue with the framing of the article:

The fraud charges seem more important than the discrimination that set the cases in motion. The Pigford case should be read not as a spigot of easy money but rather as a blueprint on how to obtain retribution for discrimination. That lawyers and politicians complicated the equation of payments and shysters held out their greedy hands does not diminish Judge Friedman’s finding of discrimination. Had employees impartially executed USDA policy, there would have been no discrimination suits or attorneys and shysters rushing to file claims.

Others added that Obama’s USDA received unfair criticism in the Times report, and that the current administration is attempting to right the wrongs of previous administrations.

“Pigford settled in 1999. When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took office, he inherited three major discrimination cases that had been pending for more than 10 years,” wrote Susan Schneider, who directs the Program in Agricultural & Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. “He is resolving those cases. In part because of the timing, the number of claimants will not be nearly as large as Pigford. I applaud Secretary Vilsack and USDA for their efforts.”

In a letter to the Chicago Tribune that was printed Monday, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack himself acknowledged the department’s culpability in the case and accused reports in both the Times and the Tribune of “failing to acknowledge additional safeguards put in place under the Obama administration.”

“Even as we work to correct past discrimination, we’re working to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself,” Vilsack wrote. “It’s unfortunate that folks are looking at an incomplete set of facts regarding these settlements, while discounting the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure that government is working for every American in the decades ahead.”

Is the government doing the right thing in settling with so many farmers over discrimination allegations?

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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter