A decade ago, farmer-members of LSP’s Federal Farm Policy Committee participated with members of the National Black Farmers Association in a march on the USDA’s headquarters in Washington. That’s because the USDA has had a long, sad history of discriminating against African American, Latino, Native American and even women farmers. LSP believed then and we believe now that America cannot truly have a sustainable food and farming system until institutional and structural racism is addressed, and farmers of all types and backgrounds have a fair shake at making a good living on the land. On Tuesday, Congress took an important step in addressing at least one case of structural racism.
Lawmakers have approved $1.25 billion in funding for a settlement compensating African American farmers for decades of discrimination on the part of the USDA. We here at LSP applaud this action and encourage leaders in Washington to resolve similar discrimination lawsuits filed against the USDA by women and Latino farmers.
Tuesday’s funding is an important acknowledgment that our nation’s top agriculture department systematically denied African American farmers even the most basic rights when it came to utilization of taxpayer-funded farm programs. As John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association said earlier this week, “This is long overdue justice for black farmers.”
This week’s funding for the so-called Pigford II settlement had bipartisan support, and was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate and by a 256-152 vote in the House. It’s no secret lawmakers in D.C. can find little to agree on these days. But Pigford II was such an egregious case of discrimination that Senators and Representatives of all stripes saw the need to fund the pay-outs.
But even making good on racial justice is fair game for those who are willing to play politics no matter what the issue at hand. Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann publicly attacked the settlement, calling it “outrageously fraudulent” and “indefensible.” She even hinted that no USDA discrimination had been documented, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
“It is unacceptable and truly unpatriotic that Congresswoman Bachmann has chosen to vilify America’s black farmers, who were the ones whose rights were violated in this case,” says Mark Schultz, LSP’s Associate Director and Policy Director. “The facts of this case are clear, but Bachmann chose to use her status to attack hard-working American farmers rather than support restorative justice.”
Contrast Bachmann’s comments to those of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who has a career-long record of exposing and ending government fraud. Grassley, a farmer himself, praised the settlement in a lengthy statement, noting that USDA officials have admitted that discrimination occurred.
Said Grassley: “The farm bill we passed two years ago does one thing right. It focuses a considerable amount of resources on new and beginning farmers and ranchers. Well, many of the Pigford claimants were in that same boat 20 years ago. It’s time to rectify that. We know USDA has admitted that the discrimination occurred, and now we are obligated to do our best in getting those that deserve it, some relief. It’s time to make these claimants right and move forward into a new era of civil rights at the Department of Agriculture.”
What a relief to have decision makers in D.C. who believe all farmers, no matter what their color, should have an opportunity to make a living and be treated like human beings.