USDA Claims Progress Against Bias
Agency fires 13 employees for civil rights violations; increases loans To black farmers

By Ben White
Washington Post

In a controversial new self-assessment, the Department of Agriculture claims to have taken major strides toward reversing its painful legacy of racial discrimination by firing 13 employees for civil rights violations, disciplining 81 others, increasing loans to minority farmers and improving internal hiring and promotion practices.

The steps are detailed in a 40-page draft report expected to be officially released by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman later this month. None of the fired or disciplined employees are listed by name or job description in the report and the nature of their offenses are not detailed.

USDA officials said they would not release any names because of employee privacy concerns.

For decades, the Agriculture Department has been described as the "Last Plantation" and buffeted by complaints of rampant internal discrimination and workplace hostility in its far-flung outposts. In 1999, the agency settled a class action lawsuit, valued at at least $1 billion, brought by black farmers who accused the agency of discrimination in lending practices.

The draft report says that the department has paid $180 million so far to 3,600 black farmers as part of the settlement and says USDA loans to black farmers increased by 67 percent from 1995 to 1999. It also says that the department is now the largest single lender to black farmers.

"I am very proud of the progress we have made," Glickman said in an interview yesterday. "Our farm loans to women and minorities have increased significantly. We have more minorities serving on state and county committees. On balance, while I would say that at times this has been a chaotic process and is still a work in progress, we have turned this department around in many ways."

But John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, took sharp issue with Glickman's assessment yesterday, saying far too little of the settlement money has been distributed and no significant action has been taken to root out discrimination within the agency.

"I don't think their numbers are accurate," Boyd said, "because the situation with the black farmers certainly hasn't improved out here in rural America."

Boyd also criticized the agency for failing to fire any high-level employees and for not releasing the names of those who had been dismissed. "We haven't seen anybody of real significance who has been terminated," he said.

Among other findings, the report concludes that USDA has improved its hiring record, with minority employees representing 20 percent of the agency work force in 1999, compared with 17 percent for the rest of the government. It also says that "over 99 percent" of agency employees have completed civil rights training and that more minorities and women have been elected to county committees of the agency's Farms Services Administration and appointed to state FSA committees. The report attributes those increases to department outreach efforts.

The self-assessment, which Glickman described as a "progress report" and not a "victory lap," comes on the heels of an inspector general's report last month criticizing the agency's handling of civil rights complaints. The report said USDA's civil rights division had lost more than a dozen files and mishandled hundreds of others.

While Boyd of the Black Farmers Association was critical of the agency, he credited Glickman and the Clinton administration with attempting to tackle a massive problem.

"They release report after report," he said, "but the problem hasn't been fixed. The only thing you can give [USDA] credit for is recognizing that the system is broken."