order non hybrid seeds LandRightsNFarming: FW: An FYI ..interesting and she may want to interview you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FW: An FYI ..interesting and she may want to interview you.

Black Farmers vs. the USDA
Jim Crow in the Fields
By Heather Gray
     In the 1990s black farmers filed suit against the US Department of Agriculture because of egregious discrimination they experienced at USDA offices across the country, particularly in the South where most black farmers live. The tactics used by USDA staff in offices throughout the South to deny services to blacks are the stuff of legend. Further, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has been attempting to make changes in the USDA's historically racist culture (known by some as "The Last Plantation").
     The original lawsuit, known as Pigford v Glickman, was settled in 1998 and claims had to be filed by October 13, 1999. The lawsuit has been ongoing since then, however, with the second phase being for "late filers". The final date for individuals to file their claim of discrimination in the second phase was May 11, 2012. Importantly, black employees at USDA also successfully filed suit against the department in the same time period.
If farmers prevail in the lawsuit on an act of discrimination regarding credit issues they will receive $50,000 (and a cap of $250,000 for those with considerable documentation of the discrimination they experienced). 
     Some have complained that the relief is not enough. The late black lawyer J.L. Chestnut, class counsel in the lawsuit, agreed with the sentiment, but he also said that no amount of money could compensate for the pain and suffering experienced by black farmers. The lawsuit, he argued, was just the start of a process and that it would not solve all the problems.
The lawsuit called for individuals to cite the discrimination they experienced at USDA between 1981 and 1996. These years were selected because President Ronald Reagan had abolished the Office of Civil Rights at the USDA in the 1980s and President Bill Clinton had reestablished the office in the 1990s. Because of this, had a farmer complained about treatment at USDA during those years, there was no official in place to address those complaints.
     The black farmer lawsuit, in fact, is considered one of the largest ever filed against the United States government with already more than $1 billion distributed to blacks who were discriminated against by the department.
     Many pockets of the rural South are still in a time warp of prevailing Jim Crow white supremacist mentality and distinct practices to deny opportunities to southern blacks. In fact, scholar George Fredrickson in his book Racism: a Short History (2003) states that in world history there have only been three of what he refers to as "overtly racist regimes" and they are the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, and apartheid South Africa. 
     There are five features of overt racism described by Fredrickson, and while there have been some changes in the mid-20th century toward a more just and equitable society, all of these features prevailed in the Jim Crow South and the vestiges of them all are a reality: 
"First there is an official ideology that is explicitly racist... Second, this sense of radical difference and alienation is most clearly and dramatically expressed in laws forbidding interracial marriage... Third, social segregation is mandated by law and not merely the product of custom or private acts of discrimination that are tolerated by the state.... Fourth, to the extent that the policy is formally democratic, outgroup members are excluded from holding public office or even exercising franchise. Fifth, the access that they have to resources and economic opportunities is so limited that most of those in the stigmatized category are either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished."
For our purposes here, the fifth criterion, of overt racism by denying access to resources and economic opportunity for blacks in the rural South, is still practiced and most relevant to the black farmer lawsuit. Below are some of tactics used by USDA staff, and others, to do precisely that.
Historically, everything has been stacked against black farmers. For one, when the USDA's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) was created in 1942 it was known as the lending institution of last resort to help farmers stay on the land due to the devastating effects of the depression in the mid-century. Yet, black farmers have not been able to obtain access to USDA credit from that time up to the present.
     In addition to lack of government credit, black farmers have been discriminated against at commercial lending institutions where they are often either denied outright or offered onerously high interest rates.
     Further, within the USDA infrastructure there have been local county committees that have in the past wielded significant power in deciding who gets money and for what purpose. Local farmers elect the county committee members and it's been difficult to elect "voting" minority representation to these committees.
     The problem has also been that even when Congress passes provisions in Farm Bills that might benefit minority farmers, the information about the programs or opportunities is often not promoted or offered to the farmers. It's often said, "the closer you get to the farmer the harder it is for programs to be implemented" and this being the case because of prevailing cultural norms, patterns of racial discrimination and often lack of knowledge on the part of county employees about the new programs.
How the USDA Discriminates
It is crucial to note also that there are government regulations in place that require certain behavior of staff toward their clients, most of which is never adhered to by the USDA officials with their black farmers.
       For example, during the time period of the lawsuit, the program regulations state that the USDA county office should have offered assistance to the applicant to determine what programs would best meet his or her needs. 
     Also, written applications should have been encouraged and then accepted. In fact, the program rules state that any person who wished to submit a farm loan application should have been permitted to do so. Further, the USDA should have encouraged applications, even if funding was not available at the time, since once funding did become available, applications were considered in the order received.
     In regard to getting credit from the USDA, if the farmer was fortunate to even receive an application, there should normally have been a two-part decision making process. The USDA would decide if the applicant was eligible and, if eligible, the USDA would evaluate if the loan should be approved. Also, the applicant needed to show that the loan could be repaid and that there was adequate collateral.
The USDA staff often managed to circumvent all of these directives when it came to serving black farmers. In violation of the regulations, USDA county office managers and other staff often denied blacks an opportunity to apply, and routiinely discouraged blacks from applying by saying there were no applications or money available. 
If, per chance, black farmers were able to receive a loan, the USDA should, as mentioned, offer loan services to them if they were finding it difficult to make their payments, but more often this never happened. The results were often devastating with foreclosures and loss of land generally.
     The loans were supposed to have been provided in a timely fashion. Often for the black farmers, the loan money came too late to plant their crops leaving them in a dilemma as to whether or not they should accept the loan. Further, often the loan amount was less then the farmer had requested for his or her farm operation.
      The USDA staff has also been renowned for their stalling tactics. They would delay a decision on a loan application thus making irrelevant the economic calculations or cash flow in the farm and home plan submitted by the farmer and requiring the farmer to develop a new plan...sometimes again and again.
Perhaps one of the demeaning practices by USDA has been its "supervised accounts". Often, if black farmers went through all the process of submitting their loan application to USDA and being approved, the USDA would insist that the loan be "supervised". This means that the farmer would not receive the money to administer his or her loan but, instead, the USDA kept the money. For any credit needs (as in buying seeds or fertilizer, etc.), the farmer was required to go to the USDA county office to request a check for even these small payments, all the while taking time away from his or her farm practice, plus travel expenses. It could be described as the ultimate in the southern plantation culture of impoverishment and control.
These are just a few examples, but the accounts from farmers about their dealings with USDA represent a sad tale of lost opportunities, lost land and homesteads, lost marriages and families destroyed because of lack of opportunities to pursue careers in agriculture.
     Since the 1990s, I have assisted farmers with their claim forms and in appealing the decisions on their claims by the lawsuit administrators. One farmer in South Carolina described how he had gone to enormous lengths to prepare his loan application, which included assistance from an agriculture economist at Clemson University. When he submitted the application to the USDA county office, the manager threw it in the garbage can. As the farmer described this to me he choked up and had to leave the room. I was told by one of my colleagues that a farmer in Kentucky she was assisting had been approved for a $50,000 loan. When he went to the office for the check, the USDA county official tore up the check up in front of him saying, "a nigger doesn't need this much money." This farmer is a claimant in the suit. 
I've had farmers tell me that to complain about racist behavior by USDA staff was a dangerous practice. Your livelihood and sometimes your life could be at risk by doing so. On the whole, for blacks to complain to whites is simply not something you could do safely in these closed rural Southern societies.
     President Barack Obama's USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has attempted to change the racist culture at USDA. It's true there have been ebbs and flows with this, not to mention his renowned error of firing USDA staff member Shirley Sherrod for unwarranted racial bias accusations. (It's rather interesting that the only person ever fired at USDA for racial discrimination issues was Sherrod who has worked most her life to address and challenge racism in the rural South. And she was fired for supposed discrimination against whites.) 
Still, Vilsack has been helpful in implementing the black farmer lawsuit and in recommending policy changes in the USDA infrastructure. One of his first actions at USDA in 2009 was to address civil rights problems in the department by issuing 14 points of changes. 
Vilsack said in the release about this, "These are just the first actions in a continuing effort to ensure that the civil rights of USDA constituents and employees are respected and protected. This memorandum reflects my deep commitment to changing the direction of civil rights and program delivery in USDA by creating a comprehensive approach to guarantee fair treatment of all employees and applicants." 
     After more than two years of reviewing and addressing racism within the USDA culture, Vilsack made a remarkable admission. In a meeting in his USDA office in 2011 about the black farmer lawsuit, which included a majority of representatives from black farm groups and a handful of whites (including me), Vilsack sat in his chair at the end of the oval table. He began by stating boldly, "When I became the secretary I thought I knew something about racism, but I don't. I'm learning every day." 
     This was an amazing admission to this group of blacks and I admired his honesty. Vilsack is not unique, of course. I realized when he said this that he's from Iowa. What does anyone from Iowa know about the depths of white supremacist behavior in the rural South? I can assure you, not much! 
     What is unique is admitting this when you begin to deliberately witness and consider racism in action. Many whites refuse to acknowledge the stark reality of it all. Also, many of my white friends and family, and even some black friends in Atlanta, Georgia, don't have a clue about how white supremacy is still expressed in the rural South. Vilsack, however, was getting the data and said he was learning.
     Vilsack started his USDA secretarial position by conducting a major disparity study of problems and unfair treatment of minorities within the USDA's infrastructure. It was, in fact, an update and known as the USDA's "Independent Assessment of the Delivery of Technical and Financial Assistance Civil Rights Assessment" (March 31, 2011). This effort follows other major disparity studies such as the Miller Report during the Clinton years that found similar problems followed by the Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT) report in the 1990s. 
Vilsack has, subsequently, attempted to address many of the problems highlighted in this recent research, such as, for one, more direct participation and voting power of blacks in the county committee structure.
     By filing the lawsuit in the first place, however, black farmers have led the way for these attempted changes for justice at USDA and by virtue of filing their lawsuit they also encouraged women, Latinos and Native Americans to successfully file lawsuits against the USDA.
     The struggle continues. CP
Heather Gray produces Just Peace on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM