The Obama administration reached a historic settlement last week in a lawsuit claiming decades of racial discrimination against African-American farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The settlement agreement announced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would provide a total of $1.25 billion for black farmers who were treated unfairly by USDA loan programs, with most aid going to farmers in the South -- but now it's up to Congress to appropriate the money.
"With the settlement announced today, USDA and the African American farmers who brought this litigation can move on to focus on their future," Holder said. "The plaintiffs can move forward and have their claims heard -- with the federal government standing not as an adversary, but as a partner."
The agreement sets up a non-judicial claims process in which individual farmers can demonstrate they deserve cash damage awards and debt relief.
It comes as a result of a class-action lawsuit originally filed against the USDA in 1997 by Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer who wanted to buy his own land after farming on rented land for years but was turned down by the Farmers Home Administration, created by the USDA in the 1930s as a lender of last resort. The local committees created by the agency to decide who got loans were often made up only of whites who were unsympathetic to the needs of black farmers. As the Raleigh News & Observer recently reported:
After Pigford filed his suit, thousands of farmers came forward to say that they, too, had been denied loans to buy land or pay for operating expenses, or had been approved for loans only when it was too late to plant. Many lost their land. Pigford lost his home.
Investigations into the claims showed that black farmers often had to wait more than twice as long as their white counterparts to get answers about loans; that their loans were denied or the amounts slashed more often than loans for whites; and that they were foreclosed upon faster.
A $1 billion settlement in the original Pigford case was reached in 1999, providing either a payout of $50,000 plus certain loan forgiveness and tax offsets, or a larger payment if the farmer could offer evidence to support it. The settlement was then expanded into what's known as Pigford II to include thousands of other black farmers who'd been excluded from the first suit due to notification and communication problems. Last week's settlement agreement came in Pigford II.
While Congress created a system in 2008 to review claims of racial bias from black farmers under the second Pigford case, it still has not provided the money needed for the payouts. It's thought that as many as 70,000 black farmers could qualify.
Last week's settlement agreement came on the heels of demonstrations by black farmers held earlier this month in Washington as well as historically black farming areas of the South including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Those demonstrations were organized by the National Black Farmers Association
, founded in 1995 by Virginia poultry farmer John W. Boyd Jr., who almost lost his home and business due to the USDA's discriminatory practices.
the announcement of the settlement was a step toward a "just resolution" of the black farmers' cases -- but he emphasized the importance of Congress taking action. If federal lawmakers fail to act by March 31, farmers can walk away from the agreement and pursue a new one.
"Next week another Black farmer will lose his farm," Boyd said. "Others are at risk of not living to see justice. These farmers have waited for years, and simply cannot wait any longer for final resolution."
In 1920, one in every seven U.S. farms was owned by an African American. By the turn of this century, African Americans owned only 1 in 100 farms, with institutionalized racism a major factor in the decline, according to a 2004 study
by the Environmental Working Group.