Black and Indian Farmers Deserve Funds From Settlement

10/08/2010 10:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Labyrinthian is a good word to describe the tangle of explanations given by Senate members for failing again on Sept. 29 to fund the settlements of Pigford II and Cobell, the class action discrimination lawsuits filed by black and Indian farmers.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid say that passage was virtually assured, until Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma objected. Coburn's aides say Reid's process was the problem -- that, and a lack of offsets and safeguards in the legislation -- which wouldn't have been a problem if Sen. John Barrasso's (R-Wyo.) changes had been incorporated into the most recent attempt.

Reid's people cry foul, saying that Sen. Barrasso's issues had been resolved and he no longer objected to the settlements. Barrasso, by the way, was the senator fingered in the Aug. 5 failed attempt to pass the legislation -- the seventh of nine failed attempts by my count. So now, at least according to Sen. Reid, it's back to being Coburn's fault.

Which brings up another word: wearying. The Senate has been treating these settlements like a badminton birdie since March, depriving thousands of black and Indian farmers the relief they are due from Pigford II ($1.15 billion) and Cobell ($2 billion).

Actually, both groups of farmers have been waiting longer than that. This legacy of failure and antipathy goes back at least to the beginning of the last century for Indian farmers and the 1950s and 1960s for black farmers. Tales of being swindled and of blatant discrimination are disturbing enough without the realization that the federal government itself was the culprit.

"The (Agriculture) department could be of tremendous assistance to Negro farmers who are now denied credit simply because of their desire to exercise their citizenship rights," wrote Dr. Martin Luther King in his 1961 essay "Equality Now: The President Has The Power," published by The Nation magazine. "To wipe out this kind of discrimination would be to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of Negroes on the land. A department zealous to implement democratic ideals might become a source of security and help to struggling farmers rather than a symbol of hostility and discrimination on the federal level."

Long before Shirley Sherrod was wrongly fired by the USDA based on an incomplete video clip of a speech she gave, the agency had established a poor track record on race. Tens of thousands of black farmers were deprived of loans that would have sustained their businesses while white male farmers were given ready access to them.

"Fraud, corruption and incompetence" was documented by the government itself in the management of Indian trust accounts that would have benefited farmers in the early 1900s. Hispanic and female farmers have also filed class-action lawsuits against the USDA, alleging similar acts of discrimination. Garcia v. Vilsack (Hispanic farmers) and Love v. Vilsack (women farmers) have yet to reach the settlement stage.

Meanwhile, farmers like Eugene Duffy of Choctaw County, Alabama wait for the Senate to do what's right. In the 1980s, his father raised cattle, hogs and chickens on a piece of rented farm land. The Duffy family owned 12 acres they lived on and raised a few crops but needed the rented land to sustain the bulk of their farming business.

Duffy's father wanted a loan to buy a new tractor and expand his business. He went to the USDA but was told no loans were available -- though a white farmer friend had told him otherwise.The elder Duffy had to sell his animals and find a job to provide for his family.

"That was our heritage," Eugene Duffy told me. "We are farmers, you know. That's what made it so bad. That's what we do."

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, blames the Senate for not passing the settlement legislation but has also criticized President Obama, whom he supported in the 2008 campaign, for not being a stronger advocate for the black farmers.

"I would like to hear the president saying 'Hey, the black farmers deserve this vote in the Senate,' and urge the leadership in the Senate to move swiftly so that he can sign the bill into law," Boyd said.

In his September 10th White House press conference, Obama did express support -- though relatively tepidly -- for Pigford II and Cobell to be settled.

"It is a fair settlement," the president said in reference to both cases. "It is a just settlement. We think it's important for Congress to fund that settlement. We're going to continue to make it a priority."

Boyd has called the USDA the last plantation, a label he maintains will stick until the Pigford II settlement is passed. If that's true, then the Senate must be the plantation's capricious Massa. With each of its nine failed attempts, it has callously toyed with these farmers, shamefully delaying its opportunity to correct decades of documented discrimination by refusing to rise above its own political machinations.