Response to Sara Wyant’s article entitled: ‘USDA’s Pigford case: More claims than Black farmers’
By Heather Gray* and Ralph Paige**
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Of relevance to the Pigford lawsuit, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan eliminated the Office of Civil Rights at USDA. This meant there was no place in the government for Black farmers to address their grievances. The office was not re-opened until 1996 during the
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.
The potential universe of farmers in Pigford II is 80,000. Your article raises questions about this figure. You state, for one, that the number far exceeds Black farms in the agriculture census, which, in the recent 2007 census, was 32,938.
There are a number of things to consider in understanding
this apparent anomaly, but it is perhaps best to start with the census itself.
(1) Discrimination against Black farmers has been pervasive. The discrimination did not stop with lack of services from USDA but included the census itself. Counting Black farmers was, on the whole, not prioritized by census administrators. Historically, thousands of Black farmers have not been listed on USDA files and it is only recently that there has been a concerted effort to locate and adequately count minority farmers (i.e. African America, Native American, women, Asian, Latino). But this process is in its infancy and it’s likely that the count still does not reflect the reality of the Black farming community;
(2) Over the 16 years covered by Pigford, Black farms that are reported in the census likely had more than one person attempting to use the land to produce crops – father and son, or siblings. This is no different than with white-owned farms;
(3) The 80,000 undoubtedly includes thousands of individuals who were not familiar with the requirements of the Pigford lawsuit when they applied to participate, and they will ultimately be screened out. Please keep in mind that none of the 80,000 listed applicants has been interviewed to determine if they meet the class definition. Anecdotal evidence is that many don’t;
(4) In some instances it is likely that more than one heir has applied to participate on behalf of a farmer who died in the 1980s. But, those applications will be combined into one, further reducing the class size at the end of the day;
(5) Many Black farmers attempted to obtain services from USDA offices and were denied and generally their names have not been recorded in USDA offices unless they actually received a loan or others services.
You refer to 163 claimants in the lawsuit being from
You also question the relevance of the late filers and the
issue of not being notified. You refer to Class Counsel Attorney Alexander
Pires stating that “42 meetings were held in
Notifying the potential claimants in the Pigford lawsuit was not an easy task. Southern Blacks have dispersed throughout the country. There was not a list of individuals with addresses to contact as would be case, for example, with credit card holders or stockholders. Many of the potential claimants were living all over the country and many would have made a concerted effort to leave the rural South. As a result, it took some time for the information about the lawsuit to reach the potential universe of claimants and much of it was through word of mouth.
Yet, you also provide information about the infrastructure for the lawsuit. The Pigford “consent decree set up a system for notice, claims submission, consideration, and review that involves a facilitator, arbitrator, adjudicator, and monitor, all with associated checks and balances.” The process has been a rigorous one whether for those in Track A (claimants with less documentation) or Track B (with more documentary proof of discrimination). Claimants have to prove, to the satisfaction of authorities in the various levels of the lawsuit, that they comply with the eligibility requirements. Thirty percent of those who filed claims in the original Pigford case lost, and that doesn’t even count the literally thousands of persons who were turned away by the class lawyers without their claims being filed, once it became apparent that they didn’t meet the class qualifications. And, as I understand it, the same rigor in weeding out those who don’t qualify will be applied to the processing of Pigford II applicants.
The Pigford lawsuit has not solved all the problems for Black farmers but it has brought attention to the issue and financial relief to thousands and, as you mentioned, the Obama administration’s USDA Secretary Vilsack has vowed to address the on-going discrimination within his department. But, as J. L. Chestnut said in 2005 “Pigford was not perfect. No lawsuit or anything else crafted by the hand of man is perfect, because man is not perfect…. I will stand here and tell you that if I had understood in 1997 the magnitude, the real magnitude of mistrust that hurting Black farmers felt against their government, I would have searched for some kind of formula specifically to address that problem. I don’t know what we would have come up with. I don’t know if we could have come up with anything, but more attention would have been given to the problem. When people have been ruined by their government, it is hard for them to believe that this government now wants to help them. And I don’t care how much you advertise or where you advertise, you can’t get really to that problem in depth.”
* Heather Gray is the Director of Communications of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
** Ralph Paige is the Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
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