Letter to the Editor: Pigford advocates respond to congressional critics

By Heather Gray*

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

East Point, GA, Oct. 6 - In the Sept. 29, 2010 article in Agri-Pulse entitled GOP lawmakers clash with Agriculture Sec. Vilsack over Pigford payments to black farmers, charging 'massive fraud'” there were specific questions about the Pigford v Vilsack claims process and the USDA itself. The Representatives making these accusations were Steve King (R-IA), Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). The accusations that will be addressed here are: (1) homeless people perhaps received payments in the Pigford lawsuit; (2) some claim forms were filled out with the same handwriting; (3) some claim forms had the same narrative; and (3) if discrimination has been occurring why have USDA staff not been fired or reprimanded.

It is important to first clarify who is a claimant in the lawsuit. Under the Pigford consent decree, an eligible recipient is an African-American who:

(1) Farmed or attempted to farm between January 1981 and December 31, 1996;
(2) Applied to USDA for farm credit or program benefits and believes that he or she was discriminated against by the USDA on the basis of race; and
(3) Made a complaint against the USDA on or before July 1, 1997.

Given the charge that there might have been homeless claimants in Pigford, the operative phrase in the consent decree regarding who is a claimant is “an African-American who farmed or attempted to farm between January 1981 and December 31, 1996.” Note that the consent decree does not state that a claimant is someone who is, in fact, farming. The reason for this is because thousands of farmers were denied access to USDA services and either had to give up farming or were never able to engage in farming. They had suffered discrimination at the hands of their government and were part of the class if they qualified.

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The October 4 article does not reference the context of the struggles experienced by Black farmers in the span of years defined in the consent decree (1981-1996). Data on lack of services to Black farmers in this period is revealing. Smithsonian historian Pete Daniel in his 2007 article “African American farmers and civil rights (Pigford v. Glickman)” notes that:

Between 1981 and 1984 the percentage of FHA loans going to whites increased from 87 to 91 percent. In Florida there was no ASCS county office headed by an African American, and the state office employed a solitary black mailroom worker at the GS-4 level. The Arkansas ASCS employed only twelve blacks full-time. Southern offices resisted hiring black supervisors in part because they would supervise white women. "It's a good-old-boy buddy system," one black county director judged in September 1987. In November 1987 a coalition of legal groups brought a class-action suit against the FHA, charging that its policies had "speeded the exodus of blacks, women, Indians and the elderly from farming in North Carolina." The participation of black farmers in the FHA loan program "fell from 5.4 percent in 1980 to 1.5 percent in 1986, while Indian participation dropped from 4.1 percent to one percent during the same period.

.Judge (Paul)Friedman admitted that the Pigford case would "not undo all that has been done" but insisted it was "a good first step." By 2000, of course, it was too late for hundreds of thousands of black farmers….” (Daniel).

Due to the consequences of discrimination, many African Americans have subsequently moved into urban areas or out of the South and many have struggled to find viable economic opportunities.

In the article, the Representatives offer no proof of homeless African Americans receiving payments. However, should the homeless be discriminated against again if they qualify under the consent decree?

The article states that “a USDA employee responsible for processing Pigford claims is willing to testify that ‘He saw numerous instances where multiple forms were filled out with the same identical handwriting, same identical narrative, and same identical content, with only the names changed. . . He believes that 80% of Pigford claims were probably fraudulent.'”

To address this issue, firstly, understanding the process for assisting claimants in filling out claim forms is important; secondly, it is relevant to also consider the literacy capabilities of many throughout the South; and thirdly, it is important to understand the racism experienced by most farmers at USDA.

Implementation of the class action lawsuit required numerous avenues for outreach. Many potential claimants were elderly, or had left their farms, had never been able to farm and/or did not have access to many of the national newspapers or magazines where the lawsuit was announced. Given these challenges in notifying the class and to assist potential claimants, notices were sent throughout the country announcing gatherings in which African Americans came to learn about the lawsuit and for assistance with their claims. Each claim form had to be signed by the claimant and an attorney for authentication.

The literacy rate in the southern part of the United States has always been low compared to other regions in the country and this has been compounded in rural areas of the South. “We have a history of providing the least educational resources to the students who need the most,” said Steve Suitts, the vice president of the Southern Education Foundation …. “The people in the South have to be concerned about all children, not just their own grandchildren” (Dewan).

Some African Americans in the lawsuit could have, for example, been born in 1920 or earlier. Many would have been of school age during the segregated school system prior to the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. The quality of education during this period in many areas of the South was limited due to extreme rural poverty, lack of educational resources and racism.

In a 2000 survey of 338 African American farmers across the south (ages 20 to 93), conducted by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, 14% of the respondents had either attended or graduated from grade school and 35% had finished high school or a GED as their highest educational achievement level. Some had gone on to a higher education but they were largely the younger respondents (Gray and Pennick).

The fact is, given the educational challenges and low literacy rates in the rural South, many of the claimants in the Pigford lawsuit would have needed assistance in filling out the claim forms.

The question was also raised about the “same identical narrative” being on some of the claim forms. Indeed, methods by which farmers were denied access to program information and/or credit assistance in USDA offices was basically the “same” throughout the country. The fact that the narrative might be the same in many instances is not at all surprising but rather to be expected.

In the October 4 article, “Bachman and King also questioned why, if there has been massive discrimination at USDA in the past, not a single USDA employee has been either fired or reprimanded.” Many farmers and those of us working with farmers have asked the same question. USDA officials, however, have told us that during the Bush administration there was a “no fault” policy. If USDA staff, therefore, were implicated in discriminatory behavior they could sign a “no fault” statement and then suffer no consequences for their actions. We have also been told that the USDA is changing this policy.

In understanding the challenges faced by African American claimants in the Pigford lawsuit, or to address the accusations made by the Representatives, it is necessary to accept that racism did and does exist and structural racism was the norm at USDA. As Daniel states in his article: “Racism circulated through federal, state, and county USDA offices, and employees at every level” (Daniel). It is also necessary to look beyond racism within the USDA to the consequences of being forced off the land and the lack of public services, such as education, in rural communities both now and in the past.

  • Heather Gray is the Director of Communications of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, heathergray@federation.coop


  • Pete Daniel, “African American farmers and civil rights (Pigford v. Glickman),” Journal of Southern History (February 1, 2007).

  • Shaila Dewan, “Southern Schools Mark Two Majorities,” New York Times (January 6, 2010).

  • Heather Gray and Jerry Pennick, “Assessment of Risk Management Tools in the Black Farming Community,” Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (December 2001).

To read the Sept. 29 article covering the thee Republicans' allegations regarding the Pigford process, go to: www.agri-pulse.com/20100929H_Republicans_and_Vilsack_Clash_over_Pigford_Payments.asp

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