MAXWELL:  Remedying the plight of black farmers

7/19/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Even as a Georgia gubernatorial candidate was announcing on television that affirmative action amounts to discrimination against white people, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was standing in front of thousands of NAACP delegates acknowledging that his department has, since its inception, systematically discriminated against black farmers.

Speaking at the 89th annual convention of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, Glickman was here to respond to the implications of a $2.5-billion lawsuit filed by at least 700 of America’s black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The suit charges that the USDA has for decades denied loans and other benefits to black farmers and has unfairly seized their land.

As the lead defendant in the suit, Glickman spoke about the effects of racism in his department on black farmers and about the continuing need for civil rights enforcement. Some of his comments are worth quoting for their candor and because they place the issue in proper perspective:

_ “I believe what is happening to black farmers . . . is a moral crisis . . . that we all have an obligation to help resolve.”

_ “I spent nearly two decades in Congress. In all that time, I can recall only once the issue of minority farmers being raised. There was not one hearing in the House or the Senate in modern times until this issue blew up.”

_ “Truth be told, the further I’ve waded into issues of civil rights and agriculture, the more I’ve felt the weight not just of personal responsibility, but also of age-old national wounds that have yet to properly heal . . . the ugly scars of racial fear and suspicion which are the legacy of slavery.”

_ “Agriculture played a seminal role in (the history of slavery). America fought its Civil War over the right Southern plantation owners asserted to enslave men, women and children to work in their fields. Today, the continuing struggle of black farmers _ 30 years after our civil rights movement _ reminds us just how far our nation has yet to go to turn civil rights into civil realities.”

_ “For those who want to see us reach as a nation toward racial reconciliation, we need to look no further than the plight of black farmers. At a time when many believe that civil rights issues are less black and white than gray, the issue of black land loss stands in stark moral contrast.”

Even though he reiterated his commitment to help, the secretary promised no quick fixes. The Republican-led 105th Congress, he said, is a stubborn obstacle to redressing these wrongs immediately. He commented, however, that he spends more time on trying to solve the black farmers’ crisis than on any other issue.

And well he should, said Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a 30-year-old organization that provides a variety of services to black farmers in the Southeast. Paige agrees with Glickman that Congress is dragging its feet, even though it weighed in on the problem of black farmers long before the USDA admitted its racism.

Now, the two entities, along with the slow-responding federal court system, seem to be collaborating on stalling legislation that would put the resolution of black farmers’ problems on the fast track, Paige said.

“In the 1990 farm bill,” he said, “Congress authorized $10-million annually to provide technical and resource assistance to minority farmers through black land-grant colleges and other community organizations _ the same kind of assistance white farmers customarily get through USDA extension offices. The trouble is, Congress never followed up in the appropriation process. Only $13-million has been allocated to the minority farmers’ rights program since its inception, not the $60-million its authors anticipated.”

The core issue, of course, is that, even in hard economic times, white farmers have always gotten and still can get ready loans while black farmers _ many with comparable credit-worthiness _ cannot. John Boyd of Bakersville, Va., founder of the National Black Farmers Association Inc., said, for example, that a local USDA agent, a white man, threw his loan application in the trash.

Dozens of other farmers at the convention said that although Boyd’s case is extreme, they, too, have faced unfair rejections and cleverly operated delays after they applied for loans. Evidence shows that the average white application takes about 60 days to process, while a black application _ if it is processed at all _ takes more than 120 days. This and other racially motivated practices have caused foreclosures and the continued loss of black farms.

Consider some of the statistics:

In 1920, 1 in every 7 farmers was black.

Between 1920 and 1992, the number of black farmers declined from 925,710 to 18,816, or by 98 percent.

In 1984 and 1985, the USDA loaned $1.3-billion to farmers nationwide to buy land. Of the approximately 16,000 who received those funds, only 209 were black.

“Today in America,” Glickman said, “black-owned farms are disappearing at three times the rate of farms generally. This has meant the loss not just of economic opportunity but a rich heritage, since, oftentimes, this land passed through several generations of a family dating back to Reconstruction.”

What, then, can be done to reverse this growing crisis?

First, Glickman said _ without sounding hopeful _ the government needs to pay reparations for documented cases of past discrimination. “I am prohibited by law from settling many older cases of proven discrimination, even when the delays were USDA’s fault,” he said. “I want the statute of limitations lifted so justice delayed does not mean justice denied.”

What Glickman is referring to a two-year statute of limitations, which has been rigidly enforced and supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, that prevents most black farmers from suing for damages.

“What makes this arbitrary time frame especially outrageous,” Paige said, “is that for a long time after President Reagan abolished the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights during the 1980s, minority farmers had no appropriate authority with whom they could lodge complaints. The U.S. House recently lifted the statute of limitations on suing the USDA. Now the Senate needs to do likewise.”

In addition to lifting the two-year statute of limitations, Glickman and Paige said, Congress could help black farmers immediately by fully funding the technical resource assistance program. Lawmakers should also repeal a 1996 farm bill that prohibits the USDA from extending further credit to farmers who have experienced past credit problems but who were declared credit-worthy under the Agriculture Credit Act of 1987.

“Together,” Paige said, “these legislative advances could make a great difference in the lives of black farm families and could enrich their contribution to the nation’s agricultural production.”

Glickman said he agrees. And black farmers, instead of praying for good weather, are praying that the GOP-led Congress will do the right thing by ending this more-than-a-century-old pattern of racial discrimination against a select group of citizens.