USDA, Black Farmers Settle Bias Lawsuit

Paul Solomon, shown on his Screven County, Ga., farm,

joined a class action lawsuit against the U.S.

Department of Agriculture. (AP Photo)

By Michael A. Fletcher

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A1

 

A federal judge yesterday tentatively approved a historic agreement

requiring the Department of Agriculture to pay hundreds of millions

of dollars to black farmers who say they were denied government

loans and other assistance because of their race.

 

The agreement settles a class action lawsuit filed in 1997 by more

than 1,000 black farmers and marks the first time that the

government has agreed to compensate them as a group for racial bias

that has been documented by various federal officials for years.

Discrimination by USDA officials has been cited by civil rights

advocates and others as a major reason why the ranks of black

farmers have dwindled at three times the rate of white farmers.

Blacks now account for less than 1 percent of the nation's farmers.

 

The deal is one of the largest racial discrimination settlements in

federal history and puts to rest an issue that has long been a major

embarrassment for the Agriculture Department. The vast agency is

derisively referred to as the "last plantation" by many black

farmers and by many of the department's own minority employees who

see it as a bastion of racial prejudice.

 

In the end, the agreement could cost the federal government $400

million or more, depending on the number of farmers who step forward

with claims. Plaintiff attorneys said that as many as 4,000

claimants roughly one in four of the nation's black farmers

could end up taking part in the deal, although USDA officials

dispute that figure.

 

The black farmers alleged that for years they have been either

denied government loans or given loans smaller than those awarded to

white farmers who had similar credit histories and assets. Loan

decisions are crucial to farmers who often borrow money, based on

the next crop, to cover their considerable operating expenses. And

the Agriculture Department is the lender of last resort for those

shut out of the private credit market.

 

"This, in my view, is the most important civil rights litigation in

years," said J.L. Chestnut, one of the attorneys representing the

black farmers. "This case is fundamental. We are talking about land,

the basis of capital."

 

The vast majority of farmers are slated to each receive tax-free

payments of $50,000. In addition, the government will forgive the

USDA debts owed by the farmers, which Chestnut said typically range

from $75,000 to $150,000.

 

A second but smaller category of farmers would include those who

have well-documented discrimination cases. These farmers would agree

to have their cases settled by a court-appointed arbitrator, who

could award judgments much larger than $50,000.

 

A third category would be made up of farmers who would essentially

exclude themselves from the settlement and continue to pursue

individual administrative cases with the department.

 

In addition to cash payments and debt forgiveness, all claimants

would be given priority on future government loans and could have

foreclosed farmlands returned to them if they are still in the

federal government's inventory.

 

"This is a victory for black people," said John W. Boyd Jr., a

Baskerville, Va., farmer and president of the National Black Farmers

Association, a group founded in 1995 to fight the perceived racism

in USDA loan programs. "I think this is fair to many farmers who

would not have been able to get any compensation otherwise. Many of

the farmers who were discriminated against don't have all the

documentation needed to make their case."

 

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said he hopes the agreement

closes "a painful chapter" in the department's history. "We do not

admit or deny any of the specific allegations in the lawsuit," he

said, "but the fact that we are settling with a significant amount

of money does indicate that we believe there is substantial

liability."

 

For years, farm advocates, civil rights officials and members of

Congress have cited discrimination in the Agriculture Department's

huge loan programs as a major factor in the disappearance of many of

the nation's black farmers. Between 1982 and 1992, the number of

black farmers in the United States dropped by 43 percent, to 18,800.

The next agricultural census report, scheduled to be released in

several months, is expected to find far fewer black farmers.

 

Through the years, charges of racial discrimination have been

acknowledged in individual cases by top USDA officials. But under

President Ronald Reagan, the department dismantled its civil rights

enforcement apparatus, leaving bias complaints to mostly go

unaddressed.

 

In the past two years, activism grew around the issue, with groups

such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus joining the

farmers in protests and calls for government action. Subsequently,

Glickman met with black farmers and promised to address their

concerns. Just over a year ago, a group of farmers met with

President Clinton. Last year, administration officials pushed a

change in the law that allowed farmers to pursue discrimination

claims that were more than two years old.

 

In October, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman ruled that black

farmers could pursue a lawsuit they filed in 1997 as a class action.

The class includes all black farmers who worked between 1983 and

1997 and filed a discrimination complaint with the department or

some other government agency.

 

While many farmers view the settlement as a successful end to a long

struggle, others said it does too little to redress discrimination

that has gone on for years.

 

Ben Hillsman Jr., 47, an Army veteran and former Tennessee state

trooper, filed a discrimination complaint against the Agriculture

Department in 1988 after officials denied his application for a

government loan to purchase a "very productive" 290-acre farm to

expand his operation. When he appealed the loan denial, it was

reversed. But by then, his option to purchase the farm had expired.

He said it was later sold to a white farmer.

 

"This settlement is not adequate for me. You can't put a price tag

on your health, the disrespect, the embarrassment in the community,"

said Hillsman, who now leases out his 400-acre cotton and peanut

farm in Halifax County, N.C. "To have risked my life as a state

police officer and then be a veteran for this country, then to have

to go through this, is enough to make you hate people."

 

 

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company