By Jessica Strong
Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln stepped into a 10-year-old debacle last week to help Black farmers finally get restitution for years of discrimination by the federal government. Lincoln, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, called on Friday for a long-delayed settlement of the $1.25 billion “Pigford II” case, an historic lawsuit in which thousands of Black farmers charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture with lending bias. Lincoln said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that she hopes to finally resolve the case with funding from the supplemental appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011. “Every farmer in America should receive equal access and treatment in the delivery of USDA’s programs and services,” Lincoln said. “Congress should move swiftly to provide the funding necessary to fulfill the settlement agreement and close this chapter on discrimination within USDA.”
This isn’t the first settlement in the drawn-out civil rights battle of Black farmers. It is a continuation of the 1999 class-action lawsuit known as “Pigford I,” in which the Clinton administration agreed to pay a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford and 16,000 other farmers $1 billion because of USDA lending discrimination. However, tens of thousands of farmers missed the deadline to file their claims, and were subsequently denied compensation. The current settlement, known as Pigford II, gives those farmers a second chance to file their claims.
The Obama administration announced in February that it would finally settle Pigford II and agreed to a March 31 deadline. But as the saying goes, a promise made is a debt unpaid.
Congress missed the payment deadline when it went on spring recess without approving the settlement’s funding. The parties have now agreed to a new May 31 deadline for resolving the case. Back in February, when the administration first announced the settlement, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Barbara Lee pointed out the consequences of the years of lending bias. “Over the past 20 years, the number of farms operated by Black farmers has declined by nearly 50 percent,” Lee said. “In part, this decrease was caused by a lack of access to loans and other assistance which were provided to other farmers.”
John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association, has been vocal in criticizing President Obama and the Democrats for having dropped the ball on one of the largest civil rights settlements in history. Obama promised to settle Pigford II during his campaign and, as a senator, co-sponsored a farm bill that would have allocated $100 million to Black farmers. The administration continues to publicly express its commitment to closing the case.
Meanwhile, Native American farmers, who also filed a discrimination lawsuit in 1999, are currently involved in a similar case known as Keepseagle. The settlement deadline was scheduled for April 21, but was extended an extra 30 days for extended negotiations—leaving them in same uncertain situation as Black farmers. Discrimination suits have also been filed by women and Latino farmers.
Jessica Strong is a communications intern at the Applied Research Center.