| Black Farmers and Institutionalized Racism |
by Brian Oliver Sheppard
On January 4, 1999, Judge Paul Friedman signed a consent decree that effectively settled a long and bitter class action lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture. The lawsuit awarded damages to thousands of African-American farmers - but not unconditionally. The stipulations that the USDA managed to have included in the awarding of damages have turned out to pose quite a problem for the black farmers who claim that unfair, racist practices by this government agency caused them to lose their farms or suffer unnecessary hardships. Some black farmers covered under the lawsuit are saying their victory against the USDA is largely symbolic as of now; obtaining actual recompense for the economic penalties they have suffered is a goal still to be attained for many.
The racist practices of the USDA have become fairly well known over the past several years, thanks largely to the tireless investigative efforts of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association (BFAA) and the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA). The list of allegations by many black farmers, most of who reside in the southeastern US, is long. After independent investigations managed to substantiate many black farmers' allegations of racism, the USDA agreed to pay as much as a calculated $300 million, if not more, in total damages to black farmers for violations of civil rights extending through the past 16 years. This total reflects the $50,000 to be awarded to individual black farmers who can show that they were discriminated against. Cancellation of USDA debts has also been promised through the settlement.
Aside from their skin color being used as a factor in determining their loan worthiness or credit viability, USDA agents confronted black farmers with a host of other types ofdiscrimination. Historically shunned by larger commercial banking institutions, black farmerswere especially dependent upon the USDA as a "lender of last resort" for their farming needs.Because black farmers were supposed to be a higher credit risk than Anglo farmers, the USDAburdened them with higher interest rates, according to John Boyd, leader of the NBFA.Boyd also alleged that the USDA had a tendency to delay black farmers' loan approvalsuntil late into the crop season. USDA agents would alter loan applications to increase blackfarmers' chances of being rejected, and would alter loan repayment schedules without notice andto the detriment of the borrower, Boyd says. Investigation also found that while the approval or rejection process for Anglo farmers averaged 60 days, for African-American farmers the process averaged 120 days.
Even more overt instances of racist behavior have been documented. One black farmer reports that when he handed in his application it was thrown into the trash right in front of him. Farmers in North Carolina reported that agents would leave them sitting in the waiting room at USDA offices for 3 hours or more while Anglo farmers were given priority sessions with loan officers. In Virginia a black farmer claimed that a USDA agent displayed a loaded pistol to him in his office. After investigation, the USDA suspended the agent in question. Many times black farmers would not hear back from the USDA after filling out loan applications and would call back to find that a "computer error" had caused their application to be deleted; by the time another round of filling out paperwork was completed, crop season was already in full swing. Bankruptcy and foreclosure were often the fate many black farmers faced.
Seeking accountability for the institutional racism that has caused many black farms to fall into ruin - or to be sold at less than their value to huge agribusiness corporations - has not been easy for farmers. Ronald Reagan's administration, in its crusade to "make government smaller," chose to completely eliminate the USDA Office of Civil Rights, opening the door for racist treatment against black farmers. Without this mechanism of accountability, black farmers could not instigate civil rights complaints at the USDA but had to turn to the outside for help, beginning lengthy and expensive processes that consumed whole years.
The Clinton Administration attempted to use the elimination of the Civil Rights Office to its advantage during the lawsuit, saying that statute of limitations laws applied and if black farmers hadn't filed complaints with the USDA within two years of the instance of discrimination, their complaint was no longer valid. This was even though black farmers had no agency at which to file discrimination claims. Bitter protests prompted government officials to launch a civil rights investigation into USDA practices. The investigation found that "minority farmers have lost significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination." In 1996 the Clinton Administration restored the Office of Civil Rights within the USDA.
The payment of $50,000 promised to farmers who were discriminated against does not adequately satisfy the needs of black farmers, nor does it bring a just end to this chapter of institutional racism in the US system. To receive compensation, a black farmer part of the class action suit must somehow prove that an Anglo farmer "similarly situated" was approved for loans that he was himself denied. The process for receiving this payment has become as much of a bureaucratic nightmare as applying for the loans had been for many black farmers.
"No other victims have ever had to furnish such proof after a culprit has plead guilty," Gary Grant, head of the BFAA, pointed out. Also, racist USDA officials who discriminated against African-Americans will not be removed from office, much less prosecuted or punished in any way. And also, the USDA settlement is not meant to cover any of the harsh economic penalties black farmers have had to endure with other creditors who they turned to when the USDA failed to come through for them.
"As far as the settlement, it's not going to be of help to me. If all your debt is with the USDA, it'd be a great help. But I'm tied up with debt to the bank and the USDA," Charles Dennard, a 47 year-old black farmer, told The New York Times. "To me, this is a pat on the back from the Agriculture Department, saying, `We acknowledge what we did. Here's enough money to get out of our hair.' Well, I don't want a pat on the back and it's not enough money," John De Courdreaux, a black Michigan farmer, protested. Many black farms, some of which belonged to black families since Reconstruction, are lost forever and can never be reclaimed. Bankruptcies have tainted the credit records of many otherwise credit-worthy farmers.
On December 13, 1999, 150 members of the BFAA and NBFA held protests at Lafayette Park across from the White House. The settlement, they claim rightfully, is not enough. Gary Grant of the BFAA insisted, "These folks [the US government] took our homes, took our credit rating, took our man and womanhood and person hood. These folks are not evengetting slapped on the wrist as far as we know."
The small farm is rapidly disappearing all across the United States. They are being bought out or driven into failure by huge agribusiness conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland, which ironically receives more US government subsidies than any other corporation today. While the government seems more than happy to line the coffers of its largest moneymakers, as Archer Daniels Midland certainly is, it only begrudgingly helps out the small farmer -even less so when he happens to be black. This is representative of the pattern of the US government acting on behalf of its wealthiest constituents and enabling them to expand their market share and drive out competition.
The discriminatory practices against black farmers have ensured, whether intentionally or not, that larger corporations can consolidate their market hold. Today black farmers are losing their land - their livelihood - at the rate of 1,000 acres per day, a figure that is three times the national average. In 1920, 14% of all farms were owned by African-Americans; today that figure is less than 1%. Albert J. Perry, a black farmer in Alabama, laments, "The facts of life are that all small farmers are disappearing. But it just seems that on the way out it's the black farmer who is really catching it."
"Just as oncologists often become numb to death, so do psychiatrists tend to grow insensitive to the everyday exercise of what is, after all, an incredible degree of social power." ........Dr. Neil Scheurich Psychiatric Times, January1997.
"Social adaptation to a dysfunctional society may be very dangerous." R. D.Laing
"When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called 'the People's Stick.'" -- Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy