Civil Rights at the USDA

The Department of Agriculture has a troubled history in terms Civil Rights. For decades, officials ignored complaints about institutionalized discrimination, and many still refer to the department as “the last plantation”. These issues are deeply entrenched in the operations of the USDA, and modern cases have raised a number of serious questions about how Civil Rights abuses are being tackled.

For many activists, the biggest modern success has been the Pigford Settlement. In 2000, the USDA gave out $1billion in reparations to a number of black farmers who had filed a discrimination claims between 1983 and 1997. In May 2010, the House passed a second settlement, giving another $1.15billion to farmers who had missed the original deadline for filing a complaint. The USDA commissioned a study as a part the Pigford case, and it is difficult not to be alarmed by the numbers. African-American farmers received an average of $28,408 in subsidies in 2007. By contrast, the average white farmers received more than three times that amount, at $88,379.

At some level, these settlements seem to be great successes. It is definitely important to bring justice to those who have been wronged in the past. And yet, while these repararions are honorable, it has done little to address the contemporary struggles of many people working in agriculture. In the years between 2001-2008 – after the $1billion settlement – more than 14,000 civil rights program complaints were filed. Only one was found to have merit. Clearly, discrimination is still deeply ingrained in the practices of the department.

Issues of race and ethnicity have long been intertwined with American agriculture, and will continue to be in the near future. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been aggressive in his vocal commitment to tackling issues of discrimination in the USDA. However, if Vilsack really is committed to addressing these issues, it will take more than one-off payments. Being committed to Civil Rights means addressing why inequalities are allowed to persist within our institutions. It means a new rhetoric and a new outlook. Most importantly, it requires looking critically into local practises, and being open the possibility of change.

So far, I believe in Vilsack’s commitment. I just hope that he can overcome political pressures in order to transform that commitment into something real for farmers and farmworkers in America.

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