BY KEN MORGAN
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Faced with a costly battle over a discrimination lawsuit filed by hundreds of Black farmers, the Clinton administration agreed December 19 to a six-month mediation process to settle the complaints. The Black farmers had filed a $2 billion suit last August against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman. It contends that Black farmers are victims of racial discrimination because of repeatedly being denied loans and other management and technical services by USDA.
Between 1983 and 1997, the farmers assert, the USDA failed to investigate hundreds of discrimination complaints filed by Black farmers. These practices led to foreclosures, bankruptcies, and other serious economic problems.
The National Black Farmers Association has been organizing actions to call national attention to this fight. On Dec. 12, 1996, about 50 Black farmers protested in front of the White House against discriminatory USDA practices, demanding justice and a meeting with President William Clinton. They returned to the nation's capital to protest outside the USDA April 23, 1997, two months after that agency released a report acknowledging the discrimination and presenting a supposed plan of action. More than 200 Black farmers and their supporters protested the inadequacy of the plan and the inaction of USDA in resolving the problem.
Black farmers are losing 9,000 acres of land per week. Between 1920 and 1992, the number of farms owned by Blacks decreased from 925,000 to 18,816 - a 98 percent drop. Government statistics show that Black farmers go out of business at three times the rate of their white counterparts. Black farmers' average income is one-third lower than that of whites, and their poverty rate is 20 percent higher.
An Associated Press analysis of lending practices between 1980 and 1992 revealed that Black farmers receive 51 cents for every dollar loaned to whites. The number of loans granted over that period dropped by 66 percent for white farmers and 82 percent for Black farmers. Most Black farms are located in the rural south. In 1982, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission wrote a report titled "The Decline of Black Farming in America," which stated that "unless government policies of neglect and discrimination are changed, there may be no Black farmers by the year 2000."
More than 70 Black farmers and their supporters filled the courtroom here December 19 during proceedings on the lawsuit. U.S. District Court judge Paul Friedman had given the U.S. Department of Agriculture 30 days to develop a speedy way to resolve the hundreds of discrimination complaints, or be confronted with a trial date. Friedman approved a proposal that the more than 1,000 complaints be mediated on a case-by- case basis, as opposed to as a group, with a deadline of six months.
On January 26, Friedman is supposed to assess the progress of the settlements and the adequacy of the mediation process. Black farmers and their lawyers contend that it will take at least two years, not six months to hear and mediate complaints individually.
One of the points Friedman left unresolved is whether the government can invoke a statute of limitations to deny damages in about 95 percent of the discrimination cases. Michael Sitcov, a Justice Department attorney defending the USDA, stated that farmers may only be able to receive forgiveness of their debts and top priority for new loans.
"We want debt relief and compensation for our suffering," Everett Greer of Yazoo, Mississippi, echoing the sentiments of other Black farmers at the hearing. The farmers note that since their original complaints were shunted aside, the statue of limitations should not apply.
Opponents of the Black farmers' fight say they are not good farmers and their acreage is too small to compete. One Alabama farmer attending the court deliberations dismissed this claim, saying, "We have always had to do more with less. "While farmers who are Black confront the same problems as all small family farmers - including government policies favoring big capitalist producers, low prices at the market, and natural disasters - the activists are adamant that the racist practices of the USDA and private banks have been at least a coequal reason for the disappearing Black farmer.
The farmers demanded to meet with President William Clinton at their demonstration a year ago. On December 17 the meeting happened, but not without controversy. Instead of a Black farmers' meeting, it was turned into a small farmers' meeting. Clinton limited the number of Black farmers attending to 10, and made vague promises to "bring moral and political pressure to bear when possible."
Tim Pigford, the lead plaintiff in the suit, addressed Clinton, saying, "You have been in the White House six years of the time that the USDA ignored our discrimination complaints. What have you done in those six years you have been in office?" According to several attendees, the president had no response. Earlier in the day, Agriculture Secretary Glickman had announced plans to seek new money through the 1999 budget request for minority farmers. "This is a day late and a dollar short," stated Walter Powell, a Louisiana farmer.
The farm activists said that despite Clinton's pledge to help, the Justice Department lawyers continued to drag their feet on getting a settlement in the courtroom two days later.
"We are going to again give President Clinton another
chance to do the right thing," said Gary Grant, chairman of
the American Association of Black Farmers and
Agriculturalists. On the morning of January 26, before the
next hearing in Friedman's courtroom, "we will present him a
petition signed by Black farmers and their supporters saying,
`Do what you said you were going to do.' " Grant urged "the
NAACP, Urban League, AFL-CIO, the million woman and man march
supporters, all the farm associations and advocacy groups ..
every person wanting justice to join us" for a press
conference outside the White House that day, and then to fill
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