William Reed

*Headlines are saying that “Black Farmers Are Getting Paid” because President Barack Obama has signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 that authorizes $1.15 billion to settle claims Black farmers won initially from the US Department of Agriculture over a decade ago.  

Before we all trumpet “success and justice” in this matter, take a look at how we got to here.

In 1997, a Black North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford filed a claim against the government for reparations.  Four hundred Black farmers joined Pigford’s suit and claimed USDA discrimination against them on the basis of race.  

Then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman found that 205 of the 116,261 loan and crop payments issued by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency involved the possibilities of racial discrimination.  

January 4, 1999 Judge Paul Friedman signed a consent decree that awarded damages to Blacks who farmed, or tried to farm, between January 1981 and December 1996 and had applied for USDA aid.  Claimants were supposed to file by September 15th 2000, but around 73,800 – did not.

Many Blacks know it, but maybe many do not, but institutional racism can be defined as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin”.   The “Pigford” case has bounced back and forth for years.  Now, there is a second payoff effort, but the problem for Whites now is that when the 1999 settlement was reached there were a total of 18,000 Black farmers.  Now, more than 94,000 people have filed claims for payouts.

The Pigford case shows America’s deplorable legacy of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and benign neglect is institutional and pervasive.  Shunned by commercial banking institutions, Black farmers were especially dependent upon the USDA as a “lender of last resort” for their farming needs.  Actually USDA agents delayed Black farmers’ loan approvals until late into the crop season, would alter loan applications to increase Black farmers’ chances of being rejected, and would alter loan repayment schedules without notice to the borrower.

Despite the USDA’s dastardly performances toward Black farmers, stipulations the agency managed to include in the award have turned out to pose problems for Black farmers.  This time, the Obama administration wants to bring “long-ignored claims of African-American farmers to a rightful conclusion.”  Now, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann has promised that “every claim will be investigated before a single dollar goes out the door.”

Bachman claims the Black farmers’ suit “rife with fraud” because there more claimants than there are Black farmers.  Iowa Representative Steve King has called the case “a form of reparations for slavery” and that the bulk of the Pigford II claims are fraudulent because there are fewer Black farmers than claimants.  Bachmann and King represent Whites’ typical obstacles to justice.  The number of Black farmers may have declined in direct proportion to the number who lost their farms due to USDA discrimination that denied them loans – the point of the settlement program.

Although he says that payment to Black farmers is “long overdue”, the USDA’s current Secretary Tom Vilsack “doesn’t know” how long it will take for Black farmers to actually get paid.  It could be at least a year before Black farmers get payments, but it’s highly unlikely anyone will get money until some time in 2012.  Blacks who have left the farm, or are still there, need to make sure they get paid.  They should start gathering information, particularly any proof that they filed a claim in the original Pigford case.

They should also gather any proof that they were denied loans or other assistance, or received less favorable terms, than White farmers.  The settlement applies only to Black farmers who missed the deadline for filing a claim in the Pigford I case, but even farmers who can’t prove they filed an application past that deadline should still pursue a claim.  Final court approval may not happen until next summer and farmers likely will have six months after that to file claims.

(William Reed is available for speaking/seminar projects via www.BaileyGroup.org)