How USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against black farmers

A New investigation found that USDA promoted misleading data to depict a fictional renaissance in black farming. That narrative falsely inflated the department’s record on civil rights—and ultimately cost black farmers land, money, and agency.

One week ago today, lawmakers convened the first House panel in more than a decade on the issue of reparations for descendants of slaves in the United States. The date chosen for the hearing, June 19, had historic resonance: It was the 154th anniversary of the day General Gordon Granger announced the freedom of the last American slaves in Galveston, Texas, a date still celebrated as Juneteenth.

Critics of reparations contend that the U.S. government paid its debt to black Americans long ago—if not during Emancipation, then more recently. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, one day before the hearing. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African-American president.”

But a century of oppression did not end with Barack Obama. The following investigation reveals how one largely ignored form of discrimination still devastates today: Unfair, racially-biased treatment of black farmers by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow rightly notes, oppression takes many forms. This is a story about one kind in particular: the slow-moving, institutional oppression of a sprawling government bureaucracy. These kinds of racism can be hard to see, which makes them easier to overlook. But for thousands of African-American farmers across the country, day-to-day discrimination by USDA has resulted in staggering loss—of land, of livelihood, of economic stability—over the last hundred years, and throughout our lifetimes. For these Americans, the aftermath of slavery is as current as this season’s denied loan, or this month’s deferred debt payment.

One way that loss is made visible is through the Census of Agriculture, the U.S. government’s definitive count of America’s farmers. Published every five years, most recently in April, the report provides the most comprehensive portrait available of the land, livestock, and people that produce the nation’s food. In 2014, that report was framed to suggest a 9 percent increase in black farming. For reasons explained here for the first time, that widely cited number turns out not to be true. In fact, it helped obscure practices at USDA that were discriminatory, damaging, and ongoing.

Here, we present Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Stucki’s two-year investigation into the ways agricultural census data were distorted to depict a fictional renaissance in black farming. This false narrative inflated USDA’s record on civil rights and further hurt black farmers—the very people the department claimed it had made historic efforts to help.

A photo book sits on the table at History House, a museum that chronicles the experience of relocated black farmers in Tillery, North Carolina

As his eight-year term as secretary of agriculture drew to a close, Tom Vilsack claimed to have ushered in a “new era for civil rights” at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that black farmers have long called “the last plantation.”

In a lengthy post on Medium, published in the summer of 2016, Vilsack detailed USDA’s accomplishments under his watch, making the case that President Barack Obama’s administration had brought profound changes to the department. Not only had Vilsack’s USDA taken great pains to correct past wrongs, he argued, but new policies had resulted in an agricultural sector that was more equitable, diverse, and inclusive than ever before.

“When I assumed the office of the Secretary nearly eight years ago, USDA had a reputation marred by decades of systemic discrimination,” Vilsack wrote. “Thousands of claims had been filed against the Department for denial of equal service, many based on race. Many of these claims have languished for decades, unresolved. But this Administration heard President Obama’s call to uproot inequality, and we acted.”

In the Medium post—and after that, in two lengthy interviews with us—Vilsack made several broad assertions about his accomplishments at USDA. He claimed to have resolved the discrimination complaints brought under previous administrations, while also reducing the number of new complaints. He said he had provided better funding for black farmers than President George W. Bush’s administration had. Finally, he said that his work to secure settlement funds for Pigford, a class-action discrimination suit brought by black farmers against USDA, had “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history.” For proof that these actions resulted in positive real-world changes, Vilsack frequently turned to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which reported a marked increase in black farmers.

“…this Administration heard President Obama’s call to uproot inequality, and we acted.”

That narrative became received wisdom in policy circles. “The number of black farmers in the United States is suddenly growing again,” reported YES! Magazine in 2016, citing census numbers as evidence that USDA had “begun to tackle its racist past.” Other mainstream media outlets—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today—also reported the increase. “Under Secretary Vilsack, President Obama’s USDA made encouraging progress toward righting many of the wrongs of the past and provided meaningful support to black farmers,” wrote the authors of a 2019 report for the liberal public policy organization Center for American Progress.

But nearly all of Vilsack’s claims—echoed by high-ranking USDA officials and taken at face value by the press—are extremely misleading or false.

For over two years, we have investigated USDA’s treatment of black farmers under the Obama administration and found a disturbing pattern: Though USDA came to enjoy a reputation among policymakers and the press as a steady force for good in the lives of historically marginalized farmers, Vilsack and others in the department made cosmetic changes, and little else.

Under Vilsack, USDA employees foreclosed on black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints, many of which were never resolved. At the same time, USDA staff threw out new complaints and misrepresented their frequency, while continuing to discriminate against farmers. The department sent a lower share of loan dollars to black farmers than it had under President Bush, then used census data in misleading ways to burnish its record on civil rights. And although numerous media outlets portrayed the Pigford settlement payments as lavish handouts—a narrative that originated with right-wing publisher Andrew Breitbart—USDA actually failed to adequately compensate black farmers, and many of them lost their farms.

Evangeline Grant in her Tillery, North Carolina, home, which originally belonged to her parents. Grant’s family fought the government for 30 years to maintain control of the land after their farm was foreclosed on in 1978. Evangeline and her brother Gary Grant felt that they had to stay close to home in order to help protect their parents. “We could have led other lives,” she said

We came to these conclusions over the course of an investigation that combined hundreds of hours of interviews with a wide-ranging review of USDA documents and data, including a trove of previously unpublished materials we obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. We spoke to more than 150 people for this story—including more than two dozen black farmers from almost every Southern state—and made trips to North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia to meet with farmers and their advocates. We also interviewed academic specialists and dozens of current and former USDA officials, including several interviews and email exchanges with Vilsack himself.

What emerged is the clearest depiction to date of USDA’s civil rights record under the Obama administration, one that makes it clear that—despite changes in rhetoric—black farmers faced the same challenges under Obama that they did under Bush. Yet Vilsack’s claims, backed by an array of manipulated statistics and pushed by a savvy public relations team, became widely accepted myths. These myths obscured the ways the department continued to discriminate against black farmers throughout the Obama years. They depicted a renaissance that didn’t exist, making it harder for black farmers to get the financial help they needed, often with devastating consequences. This made it easier for Vilsack to whitewash the department’s history, promote his own legacy, and deny ongoing problems through the promotion of a false claim: the suggestion that somehow, despite it all, African-American farmers were winning.

USDA resolved a backlog of civil rights complaints from the Bush years

In 2009, President Obama’s newly confirmed secretary of agriculture took the stage in an auditorium in USDA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and introduced his closest advisors to the rest of the staff. Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton, was in the audience. Wright told us that Vilsack “stood up in front of God and everybody and said that he had a very diverse [set of advisors]. And they were 100-percent white.”

“I told somebody Ray Charles would have been able to see that. That he would stand up: ‘You’re not diverse! You’re all white!’” Wright said.

“There was not a single black,” Wright continued. “And I think he might have had a black advisor once who didn’t stay very long. And that was just for show. But doing that—that’s all in eight years, in his inner circle, he did not have any blacks in advisement.”

Wright, who is black, said that his official title did not make him part of Vilsack’s inner circle: “My business card says that I was an advisor to the secretary, but I only advised on one item, and that was civil rights complaints that were filed between 2000 and 2008.”

Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton—and himself a farmer—on his family farm in Montross, Virginia

Wright told us that Vilsack had asked him, in person, to return to the department to review 14,000 leftover discrimination complaints that USDA’s civil rights office had not reviewed under President Bush. Many of those complaints had come from farmers who alleged that the department had discriminated against them, often by withholding loans, something farmers say USDA has done for decades. But though Wright would review and develop a plan to resolve those cases, he said his efforts ultimately amounted to little more than paper shuffling.

“If I had known that the only thing I was going to do was to create paperwork for [Vilsack’s] resume, I wouldn’t have gone back,” Wright told us. “I went back because I thought we were going to address the issue.”

The department has a long history of discriminating against black farmers. That sometimes happened in overt ways: forcing people off their land, subjecting them to hostility and contempt in federal offices, and conspiring with banks and land developers to steal their property. But even when that mistreatment took a more discreet form—like routinely denying black farmers the same loans white farmers obtained with ease—its impact was still devastating. USDA and federal farm policy are largely responsible for driving black people out of farming almost entirely. Black farmers lost around 90 percent of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997, while white farmers lost only about 2 percent over the same period.

That USDA practices helped bring about this steep decline is, even in the department’s own words, “well documented.” The government recorded widespread racial discrimination at the agency in lengthy reports from the mid-1960s, early 1980s, and late 1990s, especially in the provision of credit. A report from 1997 noted that a respondent in Belzoni, Mississippi, said that USDA treated small and minority farmers “worse than I would treat a dog.”

Please continue to read this most interesting story of discrimination to hard working black farmers who are still suffering under the oppression of the US Governmental Agency who are authorized to protect their farms but sytematically destroyed their livelihood.

Part II next of a four part review of this travesty.

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