Part II Of the Story “Black Farmers Discrimination”

USDA / The New Food Economy

In 1982, the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that USDA’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA)—then the nation’s leading public lending institution for rural communities—had been so unresponsive to the needs of black farmers that it “may have hindered the efforts of black small farmers to remain a viable force in agriculture”

Wright said he had experienced some of this discrimination himself. In 1964, after he finished his bachelor’s degree in agronomy at Virginia State University, he took a job with USDA in New York, since, he said, “they didn’t hire blacks to work out in the field with farmers” in Virginia at the time.

Wright spent 37 years at the department, most of them in its conservation agency. In the 1970s and 1980s, he developed a pioneering system to help public officials identify and protect highly productive farmland. Frederick Steiner, now dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, assisted Wright with testing the method, called the Land Evaluation and System Assessment (LESA) system, in the 1980s. In a foreword to a 2001 guide to the LESA system, Steiner wrote that Wright was a “committed and idealistic public servant” whose “role is important to note because it illustrates that a single individual can make a difference in a democracy.”

Steiner said in a phone interview that Wright “was, if not the chief architect, one of the major players in … transforming the [Soil Conservation Service] into the [Natural Resources Conservation Service],” created in 1994, under President Clinton, which Steiner said gave the agency a broader focus. Wright directed multiple divisions in the conservation agency before he was named head of the civil rights office in 1997, from which he retired in 1998.

Steiner said that Wright “believed that his work could make a difference to people, especially, in his case, to farmers. He cared very much about, especially, small farmers…. He was very idealistic in his commitment to the USDA.”

Wright, a farmer himself, told us he returned to USDA because he thought he could help black farmers with discrimination complaints. “I wasn’t going back if I didn’t think I could get that done,” he said.

He would be dealing with the fallout of a badly mismanaged office. An assortment of evidence indicates that the Bush-era civil rights office was plagued by malfeasance and disarray. Between 1999 and 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released at least 10 official documents that described USDA’s continued problems in addressing discrimination complaints and reporting related statistics. Several USDA employees told us that managers had ordered the destruction of civil rights files and disregarded complaints.

“They routinely put the complaints in the corner and ignored them until the statute of limitations ran out,” said a USDA employee who worked on civil rights complaints from farmers in the Bush years and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Slow walking of time-sensitive complaints was just one of many problems. At a 2008 congressional hearing on discrimination inside USDA, Lawrence Lucas, then-president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, a civil rights group, testified that the civil rights office was also rife with harassment and mismanagement. He submitted a letter from employees that claimed the deputy director for civil rights hurled racist and sexist slurs at subordinates, while management played favorites with promotions and micromanaged the rank-and-file.

The remnants of a cotton crop mark the land in Tillery, North Carolina. Tillery was one of nine sites throughout the country where the government offered land for sale to former black sharecroppers as part of a resettlement program

The upshot was that, by the end of the Bush administration, there were 14,000 outstanding cases from between 2001 and 2008, and only one finding of discrimination during that period.

Wright had returned to USDA to make sure those outstanding cases received meaningful consideration. Back in D.C., he assembled a team and together they found that about 4,000 of the old complaints, many of them from black farmers, had merit. But the complaints involving lending discrimination were also bound by a two-year statute of limitations that prevented USDA from awarding compensation in most cases. A USDA employee who worked with Wright and asked not to be named told us that these complaints became known as “SOL cases,” both for “statute of limitations” and, in a dark comment on what awaited them, “shit out of luck.”

Vilsack has made statements that imply the department resolved these cases. “When we arrived in January 2009, there were 14,000 administrative civil rights cases pending at USDA,” Vilsack wrote in his exit memo. “Since that time, we’ve settled more than 23,000 claims, including thousands as part of large-scale class-action lawsuits.”

But because Congress never extended the statute of limitations, the department could not resolve the old lending discrimination cases Wright worked on. Vilsack has repeatedly blamed Congress for not passing an extension that would have allowed USDA to act.

“They routinely put the complaints in the corner and ignored them until the statute of limitations ran out.”

But Wright contradicts Vilsack’s account. He said he and black farmer groups pushed for the extension but the secretary failed to support them. Wright said he even helped draft provisions that would not only have extended the statute, but also included budget offsets that would have made the resolution cost-neutral.

Their work almost paid off: Wright advocated for the relevant provisions in Congress, and the House passed them twice. But, both times, the language got hung up in the Senate, where, Wright said, it died without Vilsack’s support.

“All we needed, at that time—you know, the Senate was in the hands of the Democrats—all I needed [from Vilsack] was a phone call to a couple of senators and we’d have gotten it passed. You know, I worked on the Hill trying to get us enough senators to get it passed,” said Wright, who had previously worked in the Senate.

Wright had the ear of influential policy makers at the time. He knew that the secretary’s support would get the provisions through the upper chamber. He said a senator had told him that one call to Harry Reid, then-Democratic Senate majority leader, would be sufficient. Wright said he told Vilsack all of this. “And to get that done, he never called,” Wright said.

We asked Vilsack, in emails in May and June, about Wright’s assertion that he failed to make the phone calls Wright requested.

“I have no memory of being asked by Mr. Wright to contact Senator Reid. I may have been asked and I may have made the call, but I have no memory of it,” Vilsack wrote in June.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack went on to become president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a nonprofit organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers

In an earlier email, he wrote that “We proposed and advocated it for years to no avail because we were dealing with a Congress that resisted our efforts.” When we asked him who he talked to in Congress, he responded, “We would have called or talked to Appropriations SubCommittee [sic] members as part of the budget process.”

“It is amazing to me that anyone would be critical of the Obama Administration in connection with civil rights claims,” Vilsack concluded in another of his emails. Slow walking of time-sensitive complaints was just one of many problems.

In response to a question about the sense of betrayal that many black farmers feel, Vilsack said in a 2017 interview with us that, “within the Congress that we were dealing with I think we did a pretty good job.”

Was Mr. Wright, correct concerning Secretary Vilsack?? Who knows but those poor black farmers felt the implications of every effort to block their civil rights. Throughout our history stories of this type are all over the landscape, this story is another of the failure within the system for even those who professed to care showing a lack of maximum effort. We must give credit to the farmers who preserved under conditions where current black farmer would just give up & quit taking the easy way out.

Continue with Part III where the story is more interesting

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