Black farmers won a discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture. But they are still waiting to be paid. President Obama announced the 1.25 BILLION dollar settlement in February, but although it has passed the House, it is now stuck in the Senate. Guest host Rebecca Roberts speaks with John Boyd, the President of the National Black Farmers Association, and Willie Adams, a farmer from Georgia, about the bill and why it is being held up.
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
I'm Rebecca Roberts and this is TELL ME MORE. Michel Martin is away.
Thousands of black farmers hoping to see the money they were awarded in a billion dollar settlement of a longstanding discrimination suit are still waiting today, despite assurances of a vote to appropriate the money this week. It's the same week that former Agriculture Department worker Shirley Sherrod said she plans to sue the conservative blogger who posted a video in which, out of context, she seemed to be making racist comments.
To come full circle here, the Ag Department's civil rights position Sherrod has been offered exists in part because of ongoing complaints of discrimination by black farmers.
In February, President Obama announced a $1.25 billion settlement to farmers to pay for those lawsuits. But the appropriation is stuck in the Senate and despite assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of a vote on the money this week, it didn't happen.
I'm joined now by John Boyd, the president of the National Black Farmers Association. And by Willy Adams(ph), a farmer in Georgia whose grandfather first bought the land he now farms back in 1938. Welcome to you both.
Mr. JOHN BOYD (President, National Black Farmers Association): Thank you for having me.
Mr. WILLY ADAMS (Farmer): Good day, how do you do?
ROBERTS: I'm great. John Boyd, let's start with you. Tell me about your week. You spoke with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about getting this billion dollars appropriated. Tell me about that.
Mr. BOYD: Yes. I thought we had a very productive meeting with Senator Reid saying (unintelligible) about trying to help our nation's black farmers. And we wanted a standard loan bill, and we wanted that standard loan bill to move this week in the Senate because they're heading into a recess and I think if we miss this deadline and have to come back and we get caught up in the midterm elections, it's going to be very, very difficult for us to move a bill.
But he said that he would move that bill and a small business bill that failed. And this is the sixth time that we've had a vote in the Senate and not one Republican, I want to say it again, not one Republican has voted either time. Out of six chances, not one Republican voted to help our nation's black farmers. And our people need to look at that in these states.
ROBERTS: Has it ever been a standalone bill before? Has it always been attached to something else?
Mr. BOYD: Well, it was a unanimous consent bill a freestanding bill that was offered by Senator Reid back in March I think it was - March or April. And it failed too by it was blocked by Senator Coburn from Oklahoma, who saw this issue as a race issue, a race-baited issue that the Democrats were doing.
These are black farmers' lives who've been discriminated against. We have a judgment. And I think it's very important to know that when the USDA had a judgment against me, they came out and sold my tractors, my equipment and put my personal property out on the yard. And we have a judgment against the Department of Agriculture for $1.25 billion and we can't collect.
ROBERTS: So what's the holdup? Is it just bad timing because there are so many worries about the growing deficit now?
Mr. BOYD: This is partisan politics at its worst for poor people who can't defend themselves, i.e. black farmers who don't have the monies to contribute to Senate campaigns and high-powered lobbying firms. This is the issue that has been proven. We proved it in federal court. There's a U.S. Commission study on civil rights about the black farmers. There's been congressional hearings, a hundred reports that said the black farmers have been mistreated by the Department of Agriculture.
And here we are some 26 years later still asking the government to pay up. It's almost similar to the 40 acres and a mule, where we thought we were going to get it and never got it. But we are hopeful that members of the Senate are listening to this show today and take heed that they are affecting the lives of black farmers who are dying every day waiting for justice.
ROBERTS: You've been on the frontlines of this issue for a long time. Do you think the current news context around Shirley Sherrod has changed this issue at all?
Mr. BOYD: I think they've pulled the sheet off the Department of Agriculture because, you know, here you have this lady who was harassed, asked to pull over and send a text in her resignation and to turn in her phone and car keys because of the allegation that she mistreated a white farmer. And it turned out to be the other way around, that she was helping the white farmer.
And here you have in total from the last first part of the settlement and the second part of the settlement. Nearly 100,000 people that said the Department of Agriculture treated black farmers badly. Well, we filed discrimination complaints and not one person, not one person was fired for discriminating against a black farmer. And Ms. Sherrod was made an example on national television. It just unfolded because of the allegation that she mistreated the white farmer. So I call that a triple standard.
ROBERTS: Willy Adams, I want to bring you in here. You were all for the settlement when they were announced earlier this year. What are your feelings now?
Mr. ADAMS: I'm feeling that this thing is dragging on too long, and not only myself, but other farmers. It's been going on too long. And the people are dying and becoming sick and whatever like that. Just like John said, we need to settle this thing.
ROBERTS: And how does it affect your farming? Do you need that money immediately?
Mr. ADAMS: Yes, I need it immediately. You know, like I told (unintelligible) I needed it yesterday because without funds you can't make your farm successful.
ROBERTS: So how have you been making up the difference?
Mr. ADAMS: Just been trying to do the best I can.
ROBERTS: Yeah, and do you have help? Is your family pitching in?
Mr. ADAMS: Yes. Yes.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TELL ME MORE. We're talking about the billion dollar federal settlement with black farmers that seemed to be on the verge of appropriation this week before a deficit hawk slowed the process down again. I'm joined by John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. And Willy Adams, a farmer in Georgia.
So John Boyd, if this is in part a deficit hawk issue, is the settlement paid for? Are there offsets?
Mr. BOYD: Yes. It was paid for. And this last measure that went to the floor yesterday, it was paid for. The money was found and it was paid for and the Republicans made a big escapade last time about one of the votes that was in the board (unintelligible). It wasn't paid for. We can't approve this because it's not paid for. So they found the money to pay for it. And now they still can't vote for it. And there's something terribly wrong with our political process when you play with the people's lives that are affected here.
You know, these are black farmers who put their trust and faith in this country and this administration that the right thing will happen and here we are dragging into another year. It's just like Willy, you can hear the pain in Willy Adams' voice when he said, you know, hey, we're not getting the loans and things of that nature.
We need the Senate to act and we need for them to act before they go home. I mean they have perfect lives when they, you know, when they go back home to their districts and the black farmers...
ROBERTS: Why that deadline? What difference does it make before the summer recess?
Mr. BOYD: Well, we have a August 13th deadline and the settlement agreement between the Department of Agriculture and the black farmers and the Justice Department. That agreement expires for the $1.25 billion. That means we would have to go back to the table and renegotiate this settlement and see if all parties want to stay in this settlement.
So we are facing a settlement agreement deadline and we are facing the Senate that wants to go home and recess. I never heard the word recess so much in my life until I started following this bill closely. These people have got more vacations than anybody I know. I bet they don't work more days than they do than they have recess.
But I would like to see the Senate put this thing to rest by giving us a vote and giving us an up or down vote and stop playing politics with the lives of very innocent people here that are caught up in the process.
ROBERTS: So do you think that's what's happening that they're trying to drag their feet till that settlement can be renegotiated?
Mr. BOYD: I think so. Absolutely. And if you look at this thing, we've heard every kind of excuse in the book from the Republicans. I mean you can only say too much to Harry Reid. He's came to the table. He's put this thing on the floor six times for a vote. I can't say that he's not I can't honestly sit here and tell you that he's not serious. I think he is by putting the bill on the floor for a vote. So, six times.
And not one Republican has voted for it. And when I spoke to Mitch McConnell in a button hole meeting in the hallway, he said he supported the black farmers but you guys are in spending bills that cost too much. And, you know, I've heard everything. When we had a surplus it wasn't time to pay the black farmers. Now they say we don't have any money. It's not the right time to pay the black it's never the right time.
And I say that now is the right time for Congress to act. We have a president who says he wants to get this off the book. Agriculture secretary who said he wants to close this chapter. So Congress needs to step up and do the right thing and pay these black farmers.
ROBERTS: And, Willy Adams, obviously late summer not a time for recess for farmers, what's going on on your farm in Georgia these days?
Mr. ADAMS: At the present time we're doing grass-fed cows and, well, we have, you know, the temperatures down here we're having some heat waves. So we're just doing the best we can at the present time.
ROBERTS: And why grass-fed cows?
Mr. ADAMS: Because that's why I changed the whole farm the farm going organic. Because on the niche market for a small farmer, that's about the only way to go nowadays.
ROBERTS: So you're hoping you can run a little bit more of a profit if you go organic? Mr. Adams, you're hoping that going organic might bring you a little more money?
Mr. ADAMS: Yes, that's right.
ROBERTS: And what are you hearing from fellow farmers? Are they waiting for this settlement too?
Mr. ADAMS: Yes, yes. A number of my neighbors and friends, they're waiting, they're waiting on the settlement.
ROBERTS: And are they getting angry or they're just resigned, do you think?
Mr. ADAMS: They're getting angry because it had been so long. This thing had been going on for about 10 or 12 years.
ROBERTS: Yeah, are you hearing that, too, John Boyd, that farmers are getting increasingly angry?
Mr. ADAMS: Absolutely. Absolutely. The farmers are showing up now in Washington unannounced, you know, demanding meetings with their representatives. And many of the farmers don't even understand the different chambers, you know, in the House and the Senate. You know, our fight now is in the Senate, but that's how frustrated the farmers are. All over the country where I'm getting calls, you know, why I was in a conference call explaining the other night why it failed in the war bill.
And a farmer said, John, why can't you just tell the press we don't have our money. I mean what American wouldn't understand that?
ROBERTS: Well, give us a little bit of a context to why this money was awarded. What was the basis of the discrimination suit?
Mr. ADAMS: Discrimination in this farm lending programs, which takes 387 days to process a black loan application. Less than 30 days to process a white loan application. Why disparate treatment in the U.S. farm subsidy program, where the top 10 percent of white and corporate farmers receive on average $1 million per farmer and the black farmers average $200 in the farm subsidy program. So it's just why disparate figures.
We're losing land at three times greater rate than any other race in this country. And the Department of Agriculture is the sole problem with its lending programs. And some of the race relation issues that I brought up at the beginning of the show where no one's been fined for the act of discrimination.
ROBERTS: And in addition to this settlement for past discrimination, has the discrimination changed? Have those disparities closed in the meantime?
Mr. BOYD: No. Because nobody's been penalized. And I think that's something that I brought to the president and the secretary's attention during the transition. People have to be penalized for the acts of discrimination and that has not happened at the Department of Agriculture.
ROBERTS: John Boyd is the president of the National Black Farmers Association, joined us from our studios here in Washington. And Willy Adams, he joined us by phone from his farm in Georgia. Gentlemen, thank you so much.
Mr. BOYD: Thank you for having us.
Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.
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ROBERTS: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.