BY JACQUIE HENDERSON
AND KARL BUTTS
DALLAS—More than 400 small farmers attended a February 8-10 conference here to discuss their fight for land and against racist discrimination by the U.S. government, banks, and big business. Most of the participants came from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. The event was organized by the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), and attracted some other farmers and supporters from Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia.
Several guests from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) addressed the conference. Dennis Pittman, representing Smithfield Foods, which operates the world's largest hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, also spoke. These individuals received a cool response from farmers subjected to years of abuse—from denied loan requests to stolen land.
As Burnis Turner Jr., a farmer from Point, Texas, put it in challenging USDA official Norman Bade, “We all know why we have been turned down for these programs. It’s because we have the wrong paint job.”
After Bruce Knight, USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, gave a presentation, farmer Edward Greer, 35, took the floor. He spoke about the runaround he has received from government agencies in trying to get help starting a farm in Mississippi. Greer described multiple visits to the Farm Service Agency and Extension Service offices that produced no results. “They would talk like politicians and end up wasting my time,” he said.
Other farmers expressed frustration at the way government bureaucrats have continually put them off and even refused to wait on them. “I didn’t drive 300 miles to come here and not get straight answers,” one farmer told Knight. “Too many Black farmers have had strokes and died waiting to be compensated.”
“When is the Black farmer going to get any kind of justice?” he asked. This prompted conference organizer John Boyd to dismiss the guest speakers and turn to the question farmers came to discuss—how to press the government to make good on its promise to compensate farmers who have faced systematic anti-Black discrimination.
“The vault has proved empty for Black farmers,” Guy Manning Sr., a farmer from Texas, told the Militant. He was referring to the obstruction of justice these farmers have faced since a federal court issued a consent degree in Pigford v. Glickman, settling a class-action lawsuit by tens of thousands of African American farmers. In that 1999 settlement, the federal government agreed to give each farmer who could provide minimal evidence of discrimination between 1981 and 1996 a $50,000 tax-exempt payment, debt forgiveness, and preferential treatment on future loan applications
The settlement was based on a partial admission by Washington that farmers who are Black had faced decades of racist discrimination. This contributed to driving them off their land in disproportionate numbers. In 1920 there were nearly 1 million African American farmers in the United States; one in seven farms was Black-owned, compared to 1 in 100 by 1998.
Boyd referred to a 2004 report by the NBFA and the Environmental Working Group that showed that 81,000 of the 94,000 farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. Of that number, 71,800 were turned down for failing to meet deadlines imposed without adequate notification. Boyd urged support for the Pigford Claims Remedy Act, which was introduced in Congress February 7. “All participants denied justice should sign up to force the government to do what it promised in the original decision,” said Boyd. Similar legislation was presented last year in Congress but did not go anywhere.
Steve Warshell contributed to this article.
Justice for African American farmers
Vol. 71/No. 8 February 26, 2007
Justice for African American farmers
Working people and the entire labor movement should back exploited farmers fighting for land, including African American producers. In addition to the exploitation under the capitalist rents and mortgages system all family farmers face, farmers who are Black face decades-old racist discrimination and have been driven off their land in disproportionate numbers.
The recent conference in Dallas of the National Black Farmers Association showed that the struggle against this kind of anti-Black prejudice—fostered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government institutions, as well as private banks and capitalist business—is alive.
In 1999, following mobilizations by thousands of farmers and their supporters in Washington and a number of southern states, African American farmers forced the USDA through a class action lawsuit to admit responsibility for a historic pattern of discrimination they have faced. As the USDA settled with a consent decree many farmers opposed, it agreed to pay a miserly $50,000 to each farmer who would provide some evidence of bias. However, 86 percent of the 94,000 farmers who applied for compensation were turned down, overwhelmingly due to stringent deadlines the government imposed without adequate notice.
That’s the kind of capitalist justice working people can expect under either Democratic or Republican administrations.
Farmers who are Black are denied loans disproportionately, and the banks steal their land at a faster rate than other farmers. In 1920 there were 900,000 African American farmers in the United States. According to the 2002 U.S. census, that number is now 29,000—just over 1 percent of the country’s 2.1 million farmers.
The fight by Black farmers is part of the struggle of working people against the ravages of the capitalist system. Their demands for compensation, access to land, and treatment with dignity speak to the interests of all producers on the land and beyond.
Working farmers are plagued by commodity prices too low to meet the costs of production. This cost-price squeeze drives them to debt slavery to the banks and other financial institutions. Many can barely make ends meet. In 2002, some 1.5 million U.S. farms—over two-thirds of those in the country—reported annual sales of $25,000 or less.
While subjected to different forms of exploitation, workers and small farmers have a common enemy—the capitalist class. An alliance of the exploited producers on the land and industrial and other workers is indispensable on the road toward the toilers taking power in order to end class exploitation and build a society based on human solidarity, one that can meet the needs of all.
Farmers who are Black are in the forefront of this struggle.
Working people should stand with African American and other exploited farmers and demand: Immediate compensation for racist discrimination! Stop farm foreclosures! Affordable credit for working farmers!