When President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862, he referred to it as the People’s Department. The problem is that its services have never been available to all the people.
Although the Clinton and Obama administrations have made recent efforts to correct discriminatory problems at the USDA, it’s an unfortunate fact that the USDA’s history has been marred by rampant discrimination.
This is why black farmers filed a 1997 lawsuit against the USDA that focused on discrimination in administration of its farm programs in the 1980s and into the 1990s.
The litigation — referred to as Pigford vs. Glickman (now Pigford vs. Vilsack) and named after Tim Pigford, a black farmer in North Carolina and then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman — was settled in 1999, and more than 15,000 black farmers obtained relief for USDA discrimination.
But the settlement itself triggered such an outpouring of pent-up frustration and demands for justice that, more than 12 years later, the case is still ongoing.
Black farmers originally needed to file claims by Oct. 12, 1999. While thousands of farmers met that deadline, many others were unaware of the lawsuit. As a result, the judge let people who missed the deadline petition get into the settlement, providing they did so by Sept. 15, 2000. Again, thousands of farmers filed petitions and are now referred to as “late filers.”
Of these late filers, only 3 percent (2,700) were found eligible to file a claim. This left a staggering 97 percent of late claimants (around 58,000, and more than 75 percent of all claimants) who were denied the opportunity.
To solve that problem, Congress included in the 2008 Farm Bill a provision to allow late filers into the suit, while establishing a budget of $100 million.
Since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, President Obama proposed adding considerably more monies to bring the total to $1.25 billion, an amount much closer to what likely will be needed. Based on that proposal, attorneys for black farmers and the government have negotiated a settlement of the late-filer lawsuit.
But the job remains unfinished. The Obama administration has already submitted new language, but the settlement cannot go forward until Congress appropriates the funds requested by the White House. Congress has set a March 31 deadline. Time is short, and the whole effort is teetering toward failure.
It is a tragic injustice that thousands of black farmers are still being denied relief for discriminatory behavior from their own government.
We urge Congress to act expeditiously on providing necessary funding for the black farmer late-filer settlement.