Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)
OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is part five.
The Lawsuit Against the United States Department of Agriculture
Allegations of Discrimination Against Black Farmers
Black farmers have difficulty obtaining credit and this is at the crux of their grievances against the USDA. Between 1984 and 1985, for instance, the USDA lent about $1.3 billion to 16,000 farmers but only 209 of them were black. Black farmers were also affected by falling crop prices and high interest rates charged on loans. When farmers were unable to repay their loans, banks foreclose on their property. Not only were black farmers systematically denied disaster relief aid and loans offered to white farmers, it took an average of 60 days to process loan applications for white farmers while it took about 220 days to process loan applications for black farmers. Moreover, some of the loans made to black farmers were not approved till late in the growing season. Blacks also received about $21,000 less than white farmers in loans even though they managed similarly sized farms (Merem 2006, pp. 88–92; Rural Coalition 2001; Goffe 2002, p. 43; Daniel 2013; Pigford et al. v. Glickman 1998; Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman 1999; Congressional Record 2010: S6836-S6837). A study of 348 Farm Service Agency loan applications in Georgia between 1999 and 2002 found that 57.6% of loan applications were approved compared to 39.2% of the loans of nonwhite borrowers. However, the study found that race was not a significant predictor of loan approval in multivariate models (Escalante et al. 2006, pp. 61–75). The decline in the number of black farmers caught the attention of congress and led to an investigation into the cause of the decline. Black farmers identified the USDA as an agency that discriminated against them through the programs it ran and the way the agency responded to complaints. Blacks filed suit against the agency in 1997; the case, Pigford v. Glickman, was brought by 401 black farmers alleging that the USDA discriminated against them in the way they administered farm programs. The farmers also alleged that the agency failed to investigate complaints properly.Footnote7
The programs in question were those administered by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Farmers Home Administration. Together, the two programs administered loans and subsidies such as price support loans, disaster relief payments, and farm ownership and operating loans. The two programs ran until 1994 when they were folded into the Farm Service Agency. Though the programs operated with federal funds, the funds were controlled and disbursed by county committees. The county committees made decisions on who should get funding, how much they should get, and how expeditiously requests were processed. If farmers’ requests were denied, they can appeal to a state committee and after that to a federal review board. Farmers who felt the denial of their application was racially motivated could file a complaint with the Secretary of the USDA or with the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication (Pigford v. Glickman 1998, 1999). Despite the fact that the USDA vested so much power in the hands of the county committees, these entities did not reflect the racial make-up of the communities they served. Though the Southeast region has the largest concentration of black farmers, in 1996 only 28 or 1.1% of the 2469 county commissioners in the region were black. In the Southwest region, 0.3% of the county commissioners were black. In fact, there were a total of 37 black county commissioners out of a total of 8147 nationwide.Footnote8
The black farmers’ law suit alleged that the county committees denied loans and disaster relief to blacks while those for similarly situated whites were approved. It was also alleged that the county committees took longer to process loans for blacks than for whites. Though farmers could send a complaint to the USDA, the agency dismantled its Office of Civil Rights in 1983 and from that time onwards complaints were not processed, investigated, or forwarded to the appropriate agency. As a result, farmers who filed complaints either got no response or a cursory notification that their request was denied. At the same time, farms were being foreclosed on despite the fact that complaints were filed and not processed. In 1997, the Office of Inspector General of the USDA acknowledged that the agency had a large backlog of complaints of discrimination that had not been processed, investigated, or resolved (Pigford v. Glickman 1998, 1999).
The Consent Decree
A Consent Decree between the USDA and plaintiffs was reached on January 5, 1999. The litigants in two law suits—Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman—were consolidated into one group of class action plaintiffs. The time of the alleged discrimination was limited to those occurring between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996 and farmers who were not a part of the original law suit but who met the criteria outlined above were allowed to join the class (Pigford v. Glickman 1998; Pigford v. Glickman 1999). If they chose the path that required the lowest burden of proof (Track AFootnote9), farmers filing successful claims were awarded $50,000, plus an additional $12,500 to pay the taxes owed on the settlement (Roth 2004).
The number of black farmers making claims ballooned quickly. In 2004, the court-appointed monitor Randi Roth, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that there were 22,369 eligible claimants in the case. However, thousands more—claiming that extraordinary circumstances prevented them from filing on time—filed claims through the late claims process. In all, 96,189 claims were filed. As of 2009, there were 22,721 eligible claimants; 99% of these were track A claims. In all, 69% of the claims were approved. A total of $1,002,471,686 was paid out under track A by 2009 (Roth 2004; Office of the Monitor 2009).
Continued Legal Battles Between the USDA and Black Farmers
Despite the settlement, the relationship between the USDA and black farmers is characterized by acrimony and distrust. Since 2000, more than 14,000 complaints have been filed with the agency (Vilsack 2009). There was also an ongoing controversy over what to do about the thousands of late claimants in the Pigford case that are considered ineligible. This was addressed somewhat in the 2008 Farm Bill that allowed for the late claims to be reviewed to ascertain if any qualified to be included in class action group. The bill also included a $100 million appropriation to settle the cases in addition to a provision to allow for more funds to settle cases if needed. In 2008, the National Black Farmers Association filed a lawsuit against the USDA on behalf of 823 black farmers (USA Today 2008; Hagstrom 2009). In 2010, the congress approved an additional $1.25 billion to settle approximately 61,000 additional discrimination claimsFootnote10 that had been filed by black farmers not covered by the Pigford v. Glickman settlement (Department of Justice 2010; Congressional Record 2010: S6836-S6837).