south carolinaAt a townhall meeting on Barack Obama’s rural agenda in Kingtree, South Carolina, last November.

Last week, auditors from the Government Accountability Office arrived at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin a review of how the agency has complied with a court settlement between the government and black farmers. The farmers had sued the Department of Agriculture, claiming the USDA had discriminated against African-Americans in granting loans and subsidies. The Agriculture Department had settled with the farmers in 1999, but many claims had been rejected in subsequent years. The GAO auditors had arrived to begin to sort out this ongoing dispute.

The USDA kicked the auditors out.

Six members of the Congressional Black Caucus — including presidential candidate Barack Obama — then fired off a letter to USDA asking for an explanation. Obama and the other legislators wrote that there had been a “troubling pattern of obstructing congressional efforts to understand and remedy decades of discrimination against African-American farmers.”

The story is an old, but interesting one — and may be particularly relevant because Obama has been consistent in his backing of the claims of black farmers. Yonder contributor Rick Cohen has kept up with this story and reviews the details in a recent article for the Nonprofit Quarterly. Here is Rick’s description of the saga of black farmers and the USDA:

“The Pigford decision is one of triumph and tragedy… One out of every nine black farmers lives—or lived, until recently—in North Carolina, including one named Tim Pigford. Like many black farmers, Tim Pigford thought he was going to get a farm ownership loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he didn’t. When he protested to the House Agriculture Committee, he suddenly lost the operating loans he had had access to as a tenant farmer. Then the Farmers Home Administration (part of the Department of Agriculture) foreclosed on his home.

“By depriving Pigford of critical loan funds, Pigford lost his farm, but he wasn’t alone. Since the turn of the century, the number of black-owned farms has dropped from something around 1,000,000 around the turn of the century to approximately 18,000, proportionally a decrease from 14 percent to around 1 percent of farms.

“Pigford didn’t give up. He filed a class-action suit in 1998—and won—charging the Department of Agriculture with a pattern of discrimination against African-American farmers regarding farm loan programs. Black farmers who could show even minimal evidence of discriminatory treatment at the hands of Agriculture between 1981 and 1996 would be entitled to a cash payment of $50,000, debt forgiveness (and potentially more money is specific instances), and preferential treatment on future loans.

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A man cultivating a field near Tupelo, Mississippi, in March 1936.

“At that point, the successful class action suit began to frazzle. The Department was hardly aggressive in processing discrimination claims. After extensions of deadlines due to insufficient notice to black farmers, the end results were still shocking: 81,000 out of 94,000 black farmers filing for restitution were rejected. Under a court-ordered extension of the time limits for eligibility, nearly 66,000 farmers were reviewed, but only 2,131 assisted. Not only have black farmers received little of the estimated $3 to 4 billion value of the settlement, but patterns of insufficient support to minority farmers appear to continue. Statistics show that the subsidy gap between black farmers and white farmers is widening post-Pigford.”

So, Pigford won, but black farmers lost. By the end of 2004, according to Rick Cohen, 2,660 black farmers in Mississippi had received some kind of compensation — but 19,000 others had been rejected for missing a filing deadline. The Senate voted in December to re-open the Pigford case, allowing those who missed the filing deadline to reapply for compensation. That provision was put in the Senate’s version of the farm bill.

Sen. Obama was particularly active in this debate. In a statement, the Illinois senator said, “For far too long, this country’s hardworking black farmers were discriminated against by our own government, and this legislation offers a chance for us to continue righting those wrongs.” He talked about the Pigford case in his South Carolina campaign, and also in Iowa.

This was the case the GAO auditors were coming to investigate last week, when they were asked to leave USDA offices. The Agriculture Department has long fought re-opening the Pigford settlement. Last summer, in fact, USDA employees began a lobbying campaign against including any change in the Pigford settlement in the farm bill. At the time, Obama sent a letter of protest to then-USDA Secretary Mike Johanns. (Johanns condemned the lobbying effort.)

The Pigford case is far from over — and given Obama’s long-time concern with this issue, the plight of black farmers in rural America could become an issue in the presidential election should the Illinois senator be on the November ballot.

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