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The Bitter Ironies in USDA's Firing of Shirley Sherrod

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The conflagration that embroiled the US Department of Agriculture last week (July 19) over the knee-jerk dismissal of an African American official who was falsely accused of reverse discrimination is only the latest travesty at an agency that has a notorious record on racial issues.

The department abruptly ousted long-time employee Shirley Sherrod in reaction to what turned out to be a heavily edited video, disseminated by a discredited right-wing blogger, that grossly distorted the message of a speech Sherrod gave in March about her past experiences and feelings about race and discrimination in USDA. Too late, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA and the White House realized their mistake and apologized, as indeed did President Obama. USDA offered Sherrod a new position, but she has yet to say whether she will accept.

There is bitter irony in the mistaken firing of Sherrod in light of USDA's current efforts to reverse its checkered past of racial discrimination toward farmers and employees of color. On Friday (July 23), The Washington Post described the reaction to the Sherrod affair among those who have felt the sting of USDA's discrimination first hand. It quoted, among others, Jerry Pennick, director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, where Sherrod worked before joining USDA:

The government's poor treatment of [Sherrod] has resonated loudly and badly among farmers who have faced discrimination.

"The government stands to pay out over $2 billion for discrimination against African Americans and not one person in the department has been fired because of that, yet the first African American woman to [oversee rural development] in Georgia was fired for alleged racism," Pennick said. "And nobody has been fired for proven discrimination..."

Pennick said Vilsack had built up good will with minority farmers by meeting with them to address their concerns and speaking often about "changing the culture" of the USDA, but the treatment of Sherrod has left a bitter taste. "It stands a chance of erasing all they have done," he said.

The Environmental Working Group is well versed in the history of discrimination at USDA. EWG collaborated with National Black Farmers Association on two landmark reports, 2007?s Short Crop and 2004?s Obstruction of Justice, that showed a widening gap between the federal farm subsidies paid to black farmers and those paid to other farmers, due in part to discriminatory practices at USDA. Short Crop found that "in every single category of aid, and for every crop, black beneficiaries received a fraction of the aid that other beneficiaries received."

This is the system that lavishes 74 percent of all farm subsidies on the top 10 percent of recipients, the largest and wealthiest. It's the system - stoutly defended by leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees -- that has withstood efforts by both President Bush and President Obama to trim payments to wealthy farmers. But for all the the subsidy programs' generosity toward those least in need, it has been impossible to bring closure to black farmers victimized by past USDA discrimination. Despite a settlement brokered earlier this year by lawyers for aggrieved black farmers and the Obama administration designed to settle thousands of longstanding legal claims, funding for the settlement remains stalled in the Senate, as reported last Thursday (July 22) by CNN:

In July, the House approved a war supplemental bill that included money to pay for the settlement. It now remains stuck as senators examine the bill.

The 1997 Pigford v. Glickman case against the U.S. Agriculture Department was settled out of court 11 years ago. Under a federal judge's terms dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias.

As a senator, Barack Obama sponsored "Pigford II," a measure in the 2008 Farm Bill that reopened the case. In February of this year, his administration brokered a $1.25 billion settlement for Pigford II. But Congress missed two deadlines, one in March and the other in May.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday blasted Senate Republicans for holding up the process, saying that they have "rejected over and over again any legislation that has had the Pigford settlement in it.

When EWG and NBFA partnered on the 2007 report, it seemed unimaginable that the restitution issue would linger into 2010 while black farmers and their families languished. Sadly, as the Associated Press reports, they'll have to wait longer.

Late Thursday, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.

Black farmers are once again being denied justice, while other farm interests -- with powerful backers in the Senate -- take priority. From the National Journal (subscription required).

Facing a tough re-election battle, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is fighting for a vehicle to move a disaster aid package benefiting her state's farmers that she has touted as evidence of her sway as Senate Agriculture chairwoman. Lincoln has won Majority Leader Reid's agreement to add the package to a small-business jobs bill he might offer this week, but the measure still faces several obstacles, according to Senate leadership aides. The roughly $2 billion disaster package may be an obscure provision nationally, but it is a major matter for Lincoln, who has frequently cited it in her race against Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark.

What the National Journal story does not mention is that the farmers who would receive aid in Lincoln's package need only show a minor 5 percent loss in their crops in order to receive taxpayer assistance -- a threshold so low that even subsidy proponent, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, initially balked at it.

But navigating a Congress driven by powerful special interests is not the only obstacle to black farmers seeking final restitution. In August, 2007, leaked emails revealed potentially illegal lobbying by USDA employees seeking to have funding for the Pigford settlement stripped from the Farm Bill because of the "boatload" of work it would entail for them. The episode took an even more bizarre turn when the USDA barred from its offices the Government Accountability Office investigators who were probing the suspect lobbying.

Despite pressure from congress--including from then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama--there was never any public announcement of whether USDA took disciplinary action against the employees responsible, as reported on Sept. 5, 2007, by Gannett reporter Mike Hasten (link not available):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted or is conducting an internal review of employees who plotted to illegally lobby the U.S. Senate against a farm bill that helps black farmers but it will not publicize any action taken against the employees.

Keith Williams, press secretary for Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, said the agency considers any actions taken against employees to be "a personnel issue" that, like any employer's actions, would not be a public matter.

An Aug. 2 e-mail circulated by employees of the Farm Service Agency in Virginia urged opposition to a farm bill provision reopening the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit settlement against the USDA. During a specified period, the agency paid $50,000 to every black farmer who could show that he was discriminated against in receiving loans or other assistance.

The e-mail urging fellow FSA employees to lobby senators to block the House-passed bill triggered several congressmen, including presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, and government interest groups to call for a full investigation into the matter.

The message quoted a top FSA official as saying it would be "awful" to allow more black farmers to qualify for the $50,000 settlements issued before a deadline in 1999. It also said the official, Carolyn Cooksie, deputy administrator for farm loans, was already lobbying against the provision.

John Boyd, of the National Black Farmers Association, told the Gannett reporter that the USDA also never took action against the employees responsible for the original discrimination:

Boyd said USDA never took action against the employees that were found in the Pigford lawsuit to be discriminating against black farmers.

"The biggest downfall over the years with the department is lack of accountability," he said.

Perhaps something positive can come from the Sherrod controversy in the form of a quick resolution to the Pigford funding issue. President Obama made clear in his historic presidential campaign speech on race that addressing racial divisions was a driving motivation for his decision to seek the highest office:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

The children and grandchildren of black farmers pushed from the land as a result of discrimination are in many cases the only ones left who could cheer a final decision on funding the Pigford settlements.

Consider the ironies. USDA employees discriminated against black farmers for decades. When a legal settlement finally promised justice, USDA employees lobbied against the measures. GAO investigators probing the case were tossed from USDA's offices. Then presidential candidate Obama stepped directly into the fray, demanding accountability from Bush's USDA. And now Bush's former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is a Republican member of the Senate, where the funding for the settlements never seems to get voted.

To date it remains unclear if there ever has been any action on USDA's alleged illegal lobbying against the Pigford funding. In the unsettling aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod incident-- and not halfway through the term of America's first black president -- we are left to contemplate old racial wounds at USDA, and the nation as a whole.

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