When President Obama signs the 2010 Claims Settlement Act at the White House later today, black and Native American farmers will receive more than economic relief. Thousands of farmers will reap justice after sowing decades of activist mobilization in the face of USDA discrimination.
The mainstream media has all but ignored the ongoing movement of this long marginalized demographic of African-Americans who have held firm to a culture and tradition unappreciated by many Americans. Last month’s Congressional vote to approve legislation that will provide $4.6 billion, to as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack put it, “right past wrongs”, set the stage for the national spotlight. But the real story this afternoon will not be about a president that honored a commitment to provide support, but rather a nation of farmers who knew that real change comes with a price.
The history of black farming in America is far from flowery and has been rife with discrimination that has lead to farm closing and land loss that is still difficult to fully quantify. At the turn of the century there were over 200,000 black farmers with ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.
By the 90s those numbers had dissipated to 2.3 million acres held by less than 20,000 farmers. Blacks losing farms and land from the changing economy, cultural shifts, and even mismanagement due to new generations neglecting old family business traditions paled in comparison to those losing out to institutional racism and discrimination from the federal government.
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The 90s brought a ray of hope with the largest civil rights settlement in history of $2.3 billion coming as a result of the Tim Pigford class action lawsuit. However, black farmers never received the relief anticipated and many continued to be denied benefits and were further discriminated against.
The USDA’s role in black farmer discrimination re-entered the national spotlight earlier this year when the Right took a wrong turn, attempting to discredit the words and motives of a seasoned activist and administrator, Shirley Sherrod. The initial response from the USDA and the administration spoke to the ongoing issues that existed with the agency and the needs of black farmers. But the story also elevated the work Sherrod and others were doing to assist the already active and steadfast black farmer organizations and their members.
These are the true hero’s of today’s signing. They are the farmers who never gave up, who engaged federal lawmakers and challenged the courts for nearly two decades. It was these individuals who got a small group of mainly African-American journalist to make it an issue across the country so that while not on the surface, the issue was never able to die. And it is those farmers who will remain the story after the president signs the bill today.
Will history repeat itself or will this time black and Native American farmers be able to set a precedent for other minority farmers? This story is far from over, because as the black farmers will tell you, the devil is in the disbursement.