In December, President Barack Obama signed into law House Resolution 4783, the Claims Resolution Act of 2010. This act provides funding for settlement agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit on behalf of African-American farmers as well as the Cobell lawsuit, concerning land trust management and water rights issues on behalf of Native American individuals and tribal nations, especially in New Mexico, Arizona and Montana.
Another recently settled lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, provides restitution to Native American farmers who suffered discrimination through farm loan programs. Lawsuits are still pending against the Department of Agriculture to address discrimination faced by Hispanic farmers and to address discrimination faced by women farmers. There obviously has been a pattern.
In signing the Claims Resolution Act, the president stated that we all, as Americans, have a right to our own version of the "pursuit of happiness" and this should include equal treatment under the law to allow us to benefit from opportunities that our government provides and protects. Thus the culmination of years of tireless efforts to bring redress and justice to discriminatory acts conducted at the hands of our federal government targeting at least two groups of minority farmers is finally realized.
In 1997 a class-action lawsuit asserted that African-American farmers were discriminated against when seeking loans and other benefits for their farms at county offices under the USDA's control from 1981 to 1996. There are countless stories of these farmers suffering blatant discrimination. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, recounted that when he went to his local USDA office in 1986 to apply for a modest $12,000 operating loan, the white supervisor told him that he "wasn't going to give him any of his money (the federal government's money)" and then spit chewing tobacco on Boyd's shirt. Other African-American farmers said they were denied loans and support to expand their operations because they were perceived to be too ambitious and needed to be "put in their place."
In 1999, African-American farmers and the USDA entered into a consent decree and a court-approved settlement. Although the agency admitted to some civil rights abuses, a substantial amount of the settlement was withheld during the adjudication and monitoring process. In a report issued in 2005 after two years of research, the Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmers Association found that nine out of 10 of the African-American farmers who sought restitution were denied funds. The report also found that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers spent at least 56,000 staff hours and $12 million contesting individual farmers' claims for compensation. In 2007, as a U.S. senator, Obama helped pass a bill to reopen the case, which resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement. It took three more years for Congress to authorize funding. This agreement was reached after the activist work of John Boyd and the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd made numerous trips to the capital with either his mule "Struggle" or via tractor to make a point -- real justice for African-American farmers, among numerous others, was way overdue.
There also is a larger point, one worthy of much reflection. Injustice is costly, and it affects all of us, especially when it transpires at the hands of our own government. We expect that those elected or selected to represent our best interests to responsibly engage in practices and implement policies of which we all should benefit, whether it's providing educational opportunities for our children, ensuring that we are afforded certain protections regarding goods and services, or allowing for our entrepreneurial spirit to flourish with an occasional helping hand. Land acquisition, ownership, usage and development have historically been important to all Americans, and the protection of these opportunities continues to be endemic to our sustainability. We cannot afford as a nation to engage in discriminatory practices such as those suffered by these farmers and others if we are truly going to progress.