Lobbyists for black farmers are pushing the White House to step up efforts to resolve longstanding discrimination claims.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to provide $1.15 billion for discrimination claims the farmers won more than a decade ago against the Department of Agriculture. The money would be in addition to $100 million already in place.
The budget request is the same as one made last year. But no funds ended up being appropriated by Congress, leaving lobbyists and black lawmakers frustrated with the president for allegedly dropping the ball.
“I’m very disappointed, given that myself and other black farmers went out of our way to support the president,” said John Boyd Jr., president and CEO of the National Black Farmers Association. “We want that same fighting spirit from Barack Obama as president that will transpire into results.”
Boyd has been a constant presence on Capitol Hill over the past year, lobbying lawmakers to appropriate funds to resolve the lingering discrimination claims against the Department of Agriculture (USDA). First he tried for the agriculture appropriations bill, then the defense spending bill and finally the House-passed jobs bill, but found no success in the end.
At stake is a historic discrimination suit black farmers won against the federal government in 1999, known as the Pigford settlement. In the deal, federal authorities agreed to compensate black farmers for USDA’s past prejudices.
But thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline to apply for compensation, prompting members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to seek to reopen the lawsuit. They triumphed in 2008 when lawmakers added $100 million to the Farm Bill that would begin to pay back late Pigford filers. Obama, then an Illinois senator, was key in making sure that the fund was included in the legislation.
But lawmakers were roiled last year by court filings from Obama’s Justice Department that contended the $100 million was capped, and not a starting point. That led to a series of meetings held with CBC members, Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss the administration’s position.
Frustration between the administration and some CBC members over the black farmers’ claims bubbled into public view last year.
In September, Rep. Artur Davis (D), who is running for Alabama governor, offered legislation to explicitly reject the Justice Department’s filings and provide more funding for the discrimination claims. Further, five CBC members wrote to Obama on Dec. 18, pushing the White House to find a legislative vehicle for additional funds.
“We urge you to ensure that funds are added to one of the major appropriations bills, or other available vehicle, to begin in earnest the process of providing justice to these longstanding Pigford claimants,” the letter stated.
Reps. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Davis, David Scott (D-Ga.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) all signed the letter.
The administration says it has not forgotten the black farmers’ discrimination claims and will push for them to be resolved this year, starting with Monday’s budget request.
“Since his first days at USDA, Secretary Vilsack has made it clear that he is committed to closing this unfortunate chapter in the department’s history,” said Justin DeJong, USDA’s press secretary. “Ensuring equitable treatment of all USDA employees and clients is a top priority for Secretary Vilsack. He has issued a clear policy and a comprehensive plan to improve USDA’s record on civil rights and made it clear to all employees that discrimination of any form will not be tolerated at USDA.”
Under the Obama administration, the department has beefed up its civil rights division, with field investigators in place for the first time since 1997. In addition, USDA has begun a series of civil-rights training sessions for its field offices and is setting up a congressionally mandated ombudsman to handle disputes.
Boyd is not relenting. Starting this week he will lead protests throughout the South and ending at USDA’s Washington headquarters for black farmers’ claims to be paid off. Nevertheless, he considers himself a big Obama supporter.
“What I am questioning is the White House’s priorities to get this done,” Boyd said. “The black farmers shouldn’t be put on the back burner and be told to wait.”