Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was direct, forceful and blunt when he said that the USDA does not tolerate racial discrimination. This was Vilsack’s widely circulated public explanation for firing Shirley Sherrod. There are two problems with this. One, the world now knows that Sherrod did not do or say anything to merit being branded a bigot and sacked. Vilsack and President Obama subsequently apologized to Sherrod and offered her her job back.
The second problem is more troubling. Vilsack should have been talking about the shameful and disgraceful treatment of black farmers by his agency, and the equally shameful and disgraceful treatment of the farmers by Congress. The day after Vilsack issued his lofty pronouncement about zero tolerance for racial discrimination, Gary Grant, President of the 20,000 member Black Farmer & Agriculturalists Association, flatly called Vilsack’s statement “a complete lie.” He had good reason. During the past quarter century, tens of thousands of black farmers have lost their land, homes, and livestock, due to the blatant refusal by the USDA to make or guarantee loans to them.
The farmers have filed individual and class lawsuits, staged sit-ins, held protests marches and rallies challenging the naked discriminatory lending practices of the USDA. Shirley Sherrod was one of them. She and her husband and a cooperative of black farmers were refused loans and their farms were foreclosed on in 1985. They filed a suit. It took more than two decades of legal wrangling but finally Sherrod and her husband and the other farmers won their suit and were awarded damages $13 million in damages.
WATCH ‘COUNTDOWN’ COVERAGE OF DISCRIMINATION AT THE USDA:
The USDA has revamped its operations, has an active civil rights division, and says it carefully scrutinizes its lending program to prevent bias. This doesn’t mean that the USDA has totally righted its past racial wrongs. In a statement, the black farmer’s association notes that the USDA has not punished any of its agents or officials that encouraged or turned a blind eye to discriminatory lending. A decade ago the USDA shelled out $2.3 billion to the farmers to settle the discrimination suits. But that didn’t end the injustice. Thousands of black farmers that lost their land did not get a nickel. They were excluded from the settlement through bureaucratic bungling, technicalities, and challenges by Bush Justice Department officials.
A decade later, with the approval of President Obama, Vilsack, agreed to a second settlement of $1.25 billion. This again didn’t end the injustice. Congress had to approve release of the funds. It set a deadline of March 31 for approval. The deadline came and went. Congress went on spring vacation without approving the money. It set another deadline of May 31 for approval. That date also came and went with no action.
GOP conservatives and the right-wing talking heads then went to work. They railed that the settlement was a deficit buster, was unjustified, and a political giveaway by the Obama administration to appease black Democrats. The presumption being that all the black farmers are Democrats and dutiful Obama voters.
Even as Vilsack loftily intoned about clamping down on racial discrimination at the USDA (in reference to Sherrod), Congress again stonewalled the approval of the funds. GOP Senators demanded, and with the Democrats consent, got the money stripped from the unemployment insurance extension bill. This was part of the price the Democrats paid to break the GOP filibuster against the extension.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently vowed that he and the Democrats would make a determined effort to get the settlement money approved in this month’s war supplemental appropriations bill. That effort failed just last night.
Vilsack says that Sherrod because of her horrific family history of suffering, a white farmer murdered her father and was never prosecuted, and her long fight for justice for farmers is in a unique position especially to tell the story of the farmer’s battle for justice. Unfortunately despite his subsequent apology and offer of reinstatement, Vilsack’s firing of Sherrod gave the right-wing smear machine the ammunition it needs to blast the settlement as a political scheme by the Obama administration to payoff black Democrats. New York Congressman Steven King, even less charitably, called it a fraud.
Given the fierce GOP opposition to any financial compensation for the beleaguered black farmers, and the long history of USDA racism, black farmers aren’t holding their breath that Congress will do the right thing and approve the settlement. Given her experience with USDA, Sherrod probably isn’t either.
FOR MORE ON THE BLACK FARMERS’ STRUGGLE WATCH THIS RACHEL MADDOW SEGMENT: