By LAUREN ETTER
Hundreds of discrimination complaints by minority farmers have gone unprocessed by the Agriculture Department, according to the report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released Wednesday.
The USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights has continuing "difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints," partly because of "faulty reporting and disparities" in the agency's data, according to the report. "The credibility of USDA's efforts has been and continues to be undermined."
The report touches on a sensitive topic that has plagued the USDA for decades: Efforts by black, minority and women farmers to receive loans and other services from the USDA in the face of alleged discriminatory behavior within the USDA. In 1997, the USDA's civil rights department was criticized for being in a "persistent state of chaos," according to a government report.
Among other things, the GAO report released Wednesday found that the USDA civil rights office didn't keep an accurate count of the number of discrimination complaints outstanding. Also, much of the data reported by the USDA to the public about participation of minority farmers in USDA programs are unreliable, partly because the agency's data on racial identity and gender are based on "visual observation." Such a system is problematic because "individual traits such as race and ethnicity may not be readily apparent to an observer."
In a letter responding to the GAO report, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer said that the USDA "is in general agreement with many" -- but not all -- of the agency's recommendations, including the establishment of an oversight board for the USDA civil rights agency. Mr. Schafer also criticized the GAO for not taking "into account efforts that are already under way at the Department" and relying too much on "unsubstantiated comments opined by a few individuals."
Black farmers have come out in support of the GAO report, saying the USDA civil rights office is long overdue for change.
"What's happened here is that black farmers have been shut out of the civil rights process," says John W. Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "The government doesn't really know how many complaints there are. That's shameful in its own right."
Years ago, the USDA became the target of a large class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging discriminatory behavior against African-American farmers. The case, Pigford v. Glickman, was settled in 1999, after the court found that the USDA had discriminated against black farmers by denying or delaying their applications for farm loans and other benefits.
So far, the government has paid nearly $1 billion to the black farmers.