MAXWELL:  Black farmers to finally get their due

1/6/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If my grandfather were alive, he would feel a huge sense of vindication. He would be one of as many as 2,000 African-American farmers poised to finally receive a small measure of fairness from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Maxwell died in the early 1970s, long before agricultural moneylenders in Washington or elsewhere saw black farmers as people with real faces deserving of loans to grow their crops and raise their livestock. Unable to borrow from the local USDA office in Lake County, as did his white counterparts, my grandfather lost his farm two years before his death.

Today _ as one indication of why the majority of blacks still support President Clinton _ the USDA, under the president’s urging, has agreed under a consent decree to pay as much as $300-million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1997 by the National Black Farmers Association on behalf of its approximately 14,000 members. More tax dollars may have to be paid for claims going back 15 years.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association and owner of a tobacco and egg farm in Baskerville, Va., said, during a telephone interview, that black farmers who have current discrimination cases or who file affidavits of bias and identify specific people at the USDA who denied them loans will qualify for $50,000 tax-free and will have their USDA loans forgiven. Boyd said that the average indebtedness of black farmers is between $75,000 and $150,000.

Many black farms would be viable today if President Reagan, in another of his many cynical, anti-black moves, had not abolished the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights in 1983. This agency was the only official one with which minority farmers _ most of them black and Southern _ could lodge legitimate complaints. Reagan’s action caused hundreds of farmers, many whose land had been in their families nearly a century, to forfeit their property and go into bankruptcy because their skin was black.

Like his black peers in Southside Virginia, Boyd, too, has been the victim of blatant racism. “I tried for nine years to get a farm-operating loan,” he said. “Right here in Chase City, the county farm supervisor threw my application in the trash. He told me that the program was out of money. When the investigator asked him why he loaned money to only two black farms, he called black farmers lazy. Black farmers can’t afford to be lazy.”

In 1995, Clinton began restoring the USDA Office of Civil Rights, meeting with Boyd and other black farmers and ordering Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to expedite reforms. For his part, Glickman made the effort a personal crusade.

“I believe what is happening to black farmers . . . is a moral crisis . . . that we all have an obligation to help resolve,” he said last summer to doubting delegates attending the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Truth be told, the further I waded into issues of civil rights and agriculture, the more I 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.”

Glickman has been good to his word. He lobbied the Republican-led Congress, asking conservatives to set aside politics and promptly compensate black farmers. Soon afterward, a federal judge ruled that they are a legitimately injured class and should be compensated.

Although hundreds of farmers will be helped if the litigation stays on track, Boyd and other leaders worry that the USDA has failed to punish those who clearly discriminated against an entire class.

Indeed, Glickman acknowledged that his department, since its inception, has systematically discriminated against blacks, denying them loans, erecting unnecessary obstacles, creating phony delays and unfairly seizing land.

Boyd and others have a right to be disappointed. For decades, powerful federal employees, all white and overwhelmingly male, used their power, the privilege of race, to deny black farmers _ taxpayers _ equal access to economic opportunity. Now, taxpayers must, in turn, dole out hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the damage done by racists, many opposed to affirmative action, who will not be punished.

“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,” Glickman said. “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.”