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Restitution for Black Farmers

A New York Times Editorial

July 27, 2004

In 1999, African-American farmers won a major civil rights settlement

against the United States Department of Agriculture. They had argued that the loans and subsidies they

received were substantially lower than those for comparable white farmers. What made matters worse was

the fact that Reagan-era budget cuts closed the U.S.D.A.’s civil rights office for 13 years, so most

of the complaints filed during that time were never heard. To its credit, the department conducted an

internal investigation and discovered that racial discrimination had not only occurred but had also

been structurally and historically embedded in its operations.

What looked like a

good settlement, promising prompt payment to black farmers, now looks like a failure, according to a

new investigation by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. Again and again, these farmers

have run up against procedural hurdles that have effectively blocked most of them from receiving

payments that were supposed to be automatic. Because of poor record-keeping, the U.S.D.A. seriously

underestimated the number of farmers who had been discriminated against. It also did a terrible job of

seeking out farmers who might qualify for payments. And it did nothing to help them get the documents

needed to demonstrate the loan and subsidy support that neighboring white farmers had


This is discrimination by a different name – a continuation, in effect, of the

racism historically entrenched in the U.S.D.A. The department’s resistance and the inherent

inadequacies in the original settlement have caused a staggering rate of farm failures among small-

scale black farmers: three times the rate for white farmers. That has sped up the loss of farmland to

development. In the past few decades, the U.S.D.A. has paid only lip service to the survival of small

farms. It apparently pays only lip service to civil rights as well. The remedy for this inequity will

not be found at the department. Carrying out the settlement with fairness and accountability will

require the intervention of Congress.

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