Back in February, President Obama announced a $1.25 billion settlement for 13,000 black farmers who were found to have faced overt discrimination by the USDA over the last two decades. But bills that would help fund the settlement have been stalled in the Senate for nearly just as long. And as Frank McCoy writes at The Root, even though some senators worried about re-election are hard pressed to vote to give anyone more than $1 billion, the settlement, like everything else on the Congress’s legislative agenda, may just be an issue of questionable priorities:
In 1997 Pigford I, the first USDA settlement, provided 13,000 farmers with $50,000 each and debt relief. Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer, and 400 other African Americans had filed a class-action suit against the USDA, alleging bias in allocation of farm loans and assistance. For decades their complaints were ignored or got a slow response. Pigford II occurred after the USDA admitted that thousands of other black farmers’ claims from the 1990s went uninvestigated.
This summer the Obama White House promised Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln that farmers in her state would receive $1.5 billion, ostensibly for disaster-relief aid. Cynics, however, say the money is a payoff to the farmers along with their relatives, friends and other Arkansans to get them to vote for Lincoln in November.
According to the NBFA, its members operate much smaller properties than white farmers do and are treated differently. The organization’s average member farms 50 acres, while the average white Midwestern farmer has 1,000 acres. When agricultural subsidies are provided to the black farmer, he gets an average of $200; large white-owned farms receive $1 million.
For black farmers, it’s been a long fought battle riddled with reluctant compromises. Jessica Hoffman reported for ColorLines last year that the Pigford settlement had been the result of decades of lobbying by the farmers, and even the initial billion dollar claim – with all of its imperfections – hadn’t even been paid in full before President Obama announced Pigford II.
Even if Pigford had been fully implemented, it still would have fallen short of farmers’ hopes. “We wanted land back that had been illegally taken,” [Gary] Grant says. “That has not occurred.” There were no structural changes made at the USDA to ensure that discrimination would stop.