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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Sherrod case highlights struggles of black farmers

Cassandra West

COMMENTARY

By Susan Richardson

For black farmers who were part of the landmark discrimination settlement against the USDA in 1999, Shirley Sherrod’s story is a reminder that the federal agency has a long way to go to end a legacy of racial discrimination.  The farmers sued because the agency frequently denied loans and other financial support to black farmers.

Sherrod, a USDA official in Georgia, was fired and then asked to return to the USDA after it was revealed that her videotaped comments, in which she appeared to make racist statements, were taken out of context.  Many African American farmers hope the wrong done to Sherrod will draw attention to the fact that the Senate has refused to authorize $1.15 billion for thousands of black farmers left out of the original $2.3 billion settlement with the USDA.  The same week that Sherrod was thrown under the bus by an agency with a deplorable civil rights track record,  Senators fought along partisan lines about how to fund the last of the settlement payments.

Last week, the two black farm groups – the National Black Farmers Association and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association – issued statements in support of Sherrod, linking her situation to the agency's outstanding discrimination claims.  

“Besides the U.S. Congress calling for the immediate reinstatement of Ms. Sherrod, it must set the example of leadership on justice and fairness by allowing the [discrimination case] and all outstanding civil rights claims at the USDA to be settled once and for all,” said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, made similar remarks.  Some 16,000 farmers, including Boyd, received a share of  the first settlement, according to National Public Radio. Each farmer received $50,000 and debt forgiveness.  

Though Congress agreed to fund additional payments two years ago, including  to those who missed court filing deadlines  or were omitted from the 1999 settlement,  it never authorized the money.  The House recently approved $1.15 billion for the farmers and then sent the legislation to the Senate.  

The history of discrimination against black farmers is well documented.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he is committed to changing the agency’s “sordid” legacy.  In 1983, the Reagan administration shut down the USDA Office of Civil Rights; it did not reopen until 1996.  A study by USDA researchers in the 1990s found that black farmers received fewer dollars than whites for crop payments, disaster payments and loans.  And black farmers in the class-action suit said that some rural USDA loan officers tore up their applications in their presence. 

While all small-scale American farms are struggling for multiple reasons, black farmers have remained hardest hit, partly due to the history of segregation.  Discrimination by the USDA compounds laws and practices across the nation, and in the South, in particular, that were designed to drive blacks from their land.  According to research cited by the Institute for Southern Studies, black farm ownership declined dramatically in the last century, as the farmers were pushed off land by discriminatory policies and practices.  “In 1920, one out of seven U.S. farms were black run; by 1992, African Americans operated one out of 100 farms,” according to the institute.  

Last year Sherrod and her husband were among the farmers in a cooperative that received $13 million in the 1999 settlement.  Currently, the USDA has thousands of discrimination claims against it, including those filed by women, Native Americans and Latinos.  

As Sherrod noted, many farmers, regardless of color, need support. If anything can be gained from the wreckage of the past week, it should be fairness for black farmers and a renewed commitment to all farmers.

Learn more about black farmers' concerns:  http://www.blackfarmers.org/ and http://www.bfaa-us.org/

Watch a CNN interview with John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association: http://bit.ly/8Xzm0V