Atlanta, Georgia – The controversial firing of an African-American federal government employee over comments misconstrued to be racist has refocused attention on the plight of black farmers in the U.S. South.
Shirley Sherrod, head of USDA’s Rural Development Office in Georgia, resigned earlier this month after a right-wing blogger, Andrew Breitbart, posted a video of Sherrod making comments admitting she once had hesitated in helping a poor, white farmer who needed help.
“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land, so I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough,” Sherrod said in the remarks.
However, the full 45-minute video shows her speech, in its totality, was about the need for black and white people to come together and to realise their common plight. She says she learned white farmers needed help too, and she eventually scrambled at the last minute to help him.
Sherrod resigned after being confronted by her supervisors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who were fearful the right-wing media, including Fox News, would have a field day.
Due to public outcry, the USDA offered her a new job and President Barack Obama called her personally to apologise.
Sherrod is still considering whether to take the new position, and has announced she is planning to sue Breitbart for libel.
The incident has indirectly brought the plight of farmers in the U.S. to light. But some of the black farmers who originally sued the USDA in 1997 believe the public is still not getting the full story.
“When the Pigford case was brought about, it was because black farmers were losing about 1,000 acres of farmland a day,” Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in North Carolina, told IPS. “The majority of the folks went out of business because of the discriminatory and racist actions of the agents of the USDA.”
The USDA engaged in “not giving access to loans, not giving access to programmes, not giving access to emergency loans, not giving loans in the full amount needed, slowing the process.”
“The stories never got told – USDA agent’s offices with nooses hanging on the wall, neckties with the Confederate flag on it, all kinds of subtleties of ‘boy, don’t forget where you are’,” Grant said. “Not one of them has been fired, not one of them has been demoted.”
The 1997 Pigford v. Glickman case against the USDA was settled out of court. Under a federal judge’s terms dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive 50,000 dollars each to settle claims of racial bias. They also could have any existing debt to the USDA on any outstanding loans on farmland forgiven.
As previously reported by IPS in 2004, many farmers had been systematically denied the payments the USDA had promised to them.
According to John Zippert, director of Programme Operations in the Federation for Southern Cooperatives’s Alabama office, “22,000 people filed during [a six-month window in 1999]. Of those, about 15,000 were unsuccessful.” Some of those people were able to appeal successfully while others were not, he said.
In February 2010, the USDA under the Barack Obama administration negotiated a second round of settlement payments to the black farmers.
“In the consent decree, you could file a late petition. And there are 60,000 to 70,000 who filed in that period… It’s hard to say, but my estimate… about half of those people are qualified to file a claim,” Zippert said.
“In the 2008 farm bill was a provision which would allow a new action for people who filed a late claim. This has been called Pigford 2. The Department of Justice which represents the Department of Agriculture, basically reached a settlement for 1.25 billion. 100 million was in the farm bill. There is still a need for 1 billion, 150 million. We’re trying to get that,” Zippert said.
At least twice the U.S. House has approved the funding, but it has not yet come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate.
Still, not all the black farmers who participated in the lawsuit were satisfied with the settlement.
“The farmers themselves objected to the consent agreement back in 1999. At a fairness hearing on March 04, about 700 farmers came to Washington, DC, from across the country. In excess of 40 spoke telling the judge the consent decree would do more to harm than the discrimination already endured. And still, the judge said it was a fair, reasonable, and an adequate settlement,” Grant said.
A 50,000-dollar payment did not fully compensate many of the farmers, some of whose land was worth more than that, not to mention loss of annual income.
“We didn’t want 50,000 dollars. We wanted our land back. They had land in inventory. They may not be willing to give back the same land, but if they had land in inventory, why couldn’t they give that to me?” Grant said.
One of the original plaintiffs in the Pigford lawsuit, Lucious Abrams, told IPS many of the original plaintiffs have never been paid.
“What happened was, the attorney abandoned us,” Abrams said, noting the attorney did not file supplemental paperwork in support of Abrams’s claim on time. “The way the court set it up, you couldn’t go in and defend yourself. They make the decisions on you. You send your paperwork into the attorney.”
“This case needs to be investigated, to see where the arbitrators, adjudicators, facilitators, they’re all filthy rich. All the lawyers, filthy rich, and most of the black farmers are still poor from 1997 to now,” Abrams said.
“All we want to do is stay on the land. Write the debt off [for USDA loans for those farmers still on their land] and let us stay on the land. Everyone’s prospering off these black farmers,” Abrams said.
“They did not want to give the land back to the black farmers. They had no problem giving [billions of dollars], as long as they could take the black farmers’ land,” Abrams said.
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