by Frederick Cosby, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com
Black farmers who say they suffered discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Agriculture Department are one step closer to getting paid after the Senate approved $4.6 billion to settle claims brought by them and Native American farmers against the federal government.
The voice vote action by the Senate Friday ends a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans who fought over how to pay the settlements, which were the result of two class action lawsuits filed more than a decade ago.
The settlement breaks down to about $1.2 billion for black farmers who claim they were discriminated against by the USDA and $3.4 billion to Native American land owners who say they were cheated out of royalties by the U.S. Interior Department.
The settlement bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it’s expected to pass, but not without some debate. Before November’s elections, some Republican and Democratic incumbents advocated delaying paying such a huge settlement, saying the federal government is already stretched thin financially because of the recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Republicans questioned whether the number of black farmers claiming discrimination could really be as high as the National Black Farmers Association claims. Still, the black farmers association was pleased by the Senate’s action.
“We are one important step closer to bringing justice for the tens of thousands of black farmers in this country whose lives and livelihoods were impacted by discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said John Boyd, Jr., the black farmers association’s president and founder. “I would like to extend my request for a meeting with President Obama so I can ask for his personal help in working with the Senate to resolve this matter and the other issues facing the black farmers.”
President Barack Obama on Friday said the settlement’s approval by the Senate represented “important progress,” but also serves as a reminder “that much work remains to be done.”
“That is why my administration also continues to work to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA,” he said in a written statement.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was pleased by the Senate’s action and urged the House to approve the settlement as soon as it returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
“For far too long, justice has been delayed, and thus denied, for African-American farmers and Native American trust holders,” Lee said in a written statement Friday. “Today’s action by the Senate brings us one step closer to settling two great injustices that have tragically lingered for decades.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) – a black caucus member and the highest-ranking black lawmaker in Congress – praised the settlement, but also chastised Congress for taking so long to act.
“For more than a decade, political gamesmanship prevented thousands of our nation’s black farmers from receiving the settlement fairly awarded to them,” he said Friday. “What happened to our nation’s African-American farmers and Native Americans was wrong, and we are now making a significant step to make it right.”
The black farmer’s settlement is a second round of funding that stems from a class action suit settled in 1999 over allegations of massive discrimination by local agriculture department offices in granting loans and other aid. The suit is commonly known as the Pigford case, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, who was an original plaintiff.
The federal government has already paid more than $1 billion to about 16,000 black farmers, or about $50,000 per farmer. The $1.2 billion is targeted to more black farmers, upwards to 80,000, who were denied payments initially because they missed filing deadlines.
If the House approves the measure, the federal government would partially pay for the settlement by re-directing money from a surplus in nutrition programs for women and children.
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which assisted the black farmers, praised the Senate, but also noted that the Agriculture Department under Secretary Tom Vilsack still has much more to do.
“The United States will cease being a global leader if discriminatory policies persist in its own institutions,” the organization said in a written statement Friday. “It is important that the Department, under Secretary Vilsack’s vow for stronger leadership, continue to be at the forefront of remedying past discriminatory practices … The USDA’s Office of Civil Rights has been working hard to counter the USDA’s bad history with minority farmers, and it is refreshing that Congress supports this effort through continued funding of its financial obligations.”