Federal Court Agrees: “USDA Landscape Resistant to Change for Many Seasons”
By Greg Moses
More than 11,000 black farmers have been awarded cash payments of $50,000 each for damages due to discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In his 65-page opinion ordering the payments, federal judge Paul L. Friedman acknowledged that USDA had been shameful in its discrimination against black farmers.
Judge Friedman recognized that the cash awards could not be considered payment in full for the extensive damages of USDA-sponsored discrimination. He also worried that the 1999 settlement did not bind USDA to any future methods of improvement.
The Consent Decree does not, however, provide any forward-looking injunctive relief. It does not require the USDA to take any steps to ensure that county commissioners who have discriminated against class members in the past are no longer in the position of approving loans. Nor does it provide a mechanism to ensure that future discrimination complaints are timely investigated and resolved so that the USDA does not practice the same discrimination against African American farmers that led to the filing of this lawsuit.
As a result of pressure from the class-action plaintiffs, USDA had formed a Civil Rights Action Team. But when it came time to settle the federal lawsuit, USDA refused to make any legal commitments based on the team’s findings.
In fact, the Consent Decree stands absolutely mute on two critical points: the full implementation of the recommendations of the Civil Rights Action Team and the integration and reform of the county committee system to make it more accountable and representative. The absence of any such provisions has led to strong, heart-felt objections. It also has caused the Court concern.
Judge Friedman pleaded in his own ruling that the USDA was not above the law. Despite a clear and persistent history of discrimination at USDA, the judge warned that lawlessness could not prevail. Yet the judge offered little moral consolation to skeptics.
Those legal responses, however, provide little comfort to those who have experienced discrimination at the hands of the USDA and who legitimately fear that they will continue to face such discrimination in the future. The objections arise from a deep and overwhelming sense that the USDA and all of the structures it has put in place have been and continue to be fundamentally hostile to the African American farmer. . . . Most fundamentally, these objections result from a well-founded and deep-seated mistrust of the USDA. A mistrust borne of a long history of racial discrimination. A mistrust that is well-deserved.
Excerpt from Civil Rights Action Team Report (CRAT) Feb. 1997
“There are some who call USDA “the last plantation.” An “old line” department, USDA was one of the last Federal agencies to integrate and perhaps the last to include women and minorities in leadership positions. Considered a stubborn bureaucracy and slow to change, USDA is also perceived as playing a key role in what some see as a conspiracy to force minority and socially disadvantaged farmers off their land through discriminatory loan practices.
Many of the hundreds of minority and socially disadvantaged customers who addressed the civil rights listening sessions held across the country spoke poignantly of discrimination and mistreatment by county-level employees and advisory boards who administer USDA programs. Employees also told of discrimination by USDA managers.
The problems are not new, nor are they unknown. Studies, reports, and task forces have documented the problems in report after report. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found discrimination problems both in USDA program delivery and in USDA’s treatment of minority employees. A 1970 USDA Employee Focus Group Report concluded the agency was insensitive to issues regarding equal opportunity and civil rights and that cronyism and nepotism were frequent factors in making personnel and management deci-sions. A 1982 Civil Rights Commission report found the Farmers Home Administration had not placed adequate emphasis on dealing with the crisis facing black farmers, and saw indications the agency “may be involved in the very kind of racial discrimination that it should be seeking to correct.” A report by the Congressional Committee on Government Operations in 1990 identified Farmers Home Administration as one of the key causes of the dras-tic decline in black farm ownership.
Despite the fact that discrimination in program delivery and employment has been documented and discussed, it continues to exist to a large degree unabated. USDA is a huge decentralized bureaucracy that administers several hundred federally assisted and federally conducted programs with more than 90,000 Federal and nearly 20,000 non-Federal employees throughout the world. Many of its agencies deliver programs through a large field office network in conjunction with local farmer boards which help direct how the programs are administered locally. Maintaining focus on civil rights policy across the far-flung bureaucracy is no easy task.
PDF file of Civil Rights Action Team Report (CRAT) February 1997
Excerpt from Civil Rights Implementation Team Report (CRIT) March 1998
For many years, USDA effectively ignored customer complaints of discrimination lodged against USDA employees and offices. USDA officials empowered the agencies accused of discriminating with investigating themselves, described during the listening sessions as the Òfox guarding the henhouse.Ó Not surprisingly, findings that USDA discriminated against its customers were virtually nonexistent. Minority farmers with discrimination complaints also complained that they were subjected to adverse actions, including foreclosures, while their claims of discrimination went unaddressed.
To make matters worse, while USDA regulations allow customers to file discrimination complaints with USDA, no effective process existed for handling those complaints, and customers have often been left with little or no information about the status of their complaints for years. Deadlines for taking action on complaints either did not exist or were not enforced. Customers have also complained about what they perceive as a lack of fairness in the National Appeals Division (NAD) and a refusal by agencies to take timely action to implement appeal decisions that are favorable to the customer. There has also been a great deal of confusion about the relationship between the system for hearing appeals of program decisions and the system for deciding complaints of discrimination by USDA in the delivery of its programs.
USDA hoped to resolve the backlog within the short time span of a few months in early 1997. During the initial attempt at resolving the backlog, CR discovered that the files were in disarray. Almost no complaints had been investigated due to the disbanding of the civil rights investigative unit in 1983. Without investigations, resolution of complaints would largely have involved guesswork.
As a result, reducing the backlog of customer complaints and building a workable system to address customer complaints of illegal, discriminatory conduct while holding USDA employees accountable for their actions have been among the highest priorities in 1997 (rec. 22). USDA has not only made major efforts to remedy past civil rights violations, but it has also put in place a new process of handling complaints that will ensure effective and timely handling of civil rights complaints in the future. In the latter half of 1997, the Department hired 14 permanent investigators, 13 temporary investigators, and contracted with 10 investigative firms.These investigators have been investigating the facts involving 1,088 discrimination complaints, and USDA expects to complete all investigations by 1998. This will allow the Department to meet its goal of July 1, 1998, for resolving all complaints that were filed before November 1, 1997. Since January 1997, USDA has settled or closed 224 of the 1,088 program discrimination complaints in the backlog, including some cases that dated back to the mid-1980Õs. This includes 11 major settlements that total more than $3.5 million. Thirty new complaints were filed between November 1, 1997, and February 20, 1998, five of which have been closed.
Because of the delay in resolving the backlog, in August 1997, a number of black farmers filed a lawsuit against the United States, alleging discriminatory practices against all black farmers between January 1, 1983, and February 21, 1997, and seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensatory damages. In October 1997, the Department of Justice (DOJ) successfully concluded mediation of four individual complaints, which were part of the proposed class action suit. Damages paid for those four complaints totaled $1.2 million.
A Federal judge urged the United States to agree to the farmersÕ request to use alternative dispute resolution to resolve the complaints, rather than engage in lengthy and expensive litigation (rec. 30). On December 19, 1997, all parties agreed to a 6-month mediation process to try and settle the complaints. The court ordered parties to start the mediation process on January 5, 1998. While USDA cannot use an administrative process for farmers who are members of a class action complaint or have filed a civil court law suit unless their attorneys concur, farmers who feel they have been discriminated against and have not filed a law suit can elect to use either the administrative or court process.
Feb. 1996 interview with director of Federation of Southern Cooperatives discussing drought of civil rights in black agriculture.
Chronology and updates from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
An official page.