The fiscal 1999 appropriations bill for the Agriculture Department, passed by the House and likely to clear the Senate, contains a provision that would greatly strengthen the hand of a group aggrieved for good reason: African American farmers. It would also help untangle a complicated mess that was only made worse in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan virtually dismantled the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Agriculture Department has long carried the nickname "the last plantation." That's even according to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who says that the department has earned the label for fostering a culture that forced many black farmers off their land by making it difficult for them to obtain financial assistance. The evidence is everywhere, from intransigent Civil Service-protected bureaucrats to unwelcoming county farm service offices.
A report by the USDA's own civil rights action team, for example, found that Farm Service Agency officials told black farmers they could not even apply for loans that were routinely issued to white farmers. What loan help black farmers did receive sometimes came so late in the planting season that lower crop yield and smaller profits were almost assured.
The situation has led some 400 black farmers to file a $2.5-billion lawsuit against the Agriculture Department. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman has already urged the federal government to settle, and soon.
The appropriations bill carries a provision--pressed by Rep. Maxine Waters and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as congressional leaders and the White House--that would add more weight to the lawsuit. The provision effectively removes a statute of limitations from discrimination complaints filed by black farmers between 1983 and 1996, between Reagan's dismantling of the USDA civil rights office and its reinstatement under President Clinton.
It's useful that Glickman acknowledges the problem, but he's got to do more to get at the causes. For example, too few minority farmers sit on the state farm committees that oversee distribution of millions of dollars in farm operating and loan programs and outreach programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
As for the lawsuit, the USDA ought to look at it this way: It can pay now or go down in history as having lost one of the most expensive class action suits ever filed.