House panel leader vows end to ‘racial discrimination’ at USDA

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack agrees that USDA must build trust with Black farmers

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's ouster of a Black USDA official in 2010 was the only instance of a department employee being fired for discrimination, according to Shirley Miller Sherrod, the woman he forced out of a job.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's ouster of a Black USDA official in 2010 was the only instance of a department employee being fired for discrimination, according to Shirley Miller Sherrod, the woman he forced out of a job. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 6:36pm

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee his department “will over the next four years do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers” kept Black and other minority farmers out of programs that helped other farmers prosper.

Vilsack led a panel of witnesses Thursday at what Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., called a historic hearing “to find justice for our Black farmers” on the cumulative effects of decades of discrimination that limited their access to credit and programs. Scott said those programs helped many white farmers stay in business and expand their operations.

Ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said he thought the virtual hearing allowed the committee to have “a conversation that was long overdue. The discrimination that we’ve seen a record of in the past, the documentation, whether it was systemic in terms of policy or whether it was the attitudes that were unacceptable, that certain folks had that authority at USDA, their time has passed. I think we have momentum, we have great momentum. We need to build on it.”   

In essence, Scott said, many Black farmers lost their land or stayed small, losing the opportunity to build generational wealth. He said he is working on legislation that will “end racial discrimination in the United States Department of Agriculture and the wonderful world of agriculture. This is doing God’s work.”

Scott also said the bill would help increase the number of Black farmers and their landholdings.

Scott, who is African American, said discrimination at the Agriculture Department has been well documented in studies and through a 1999 class-action lawsuit by Black farmers known as Pigford v. Glickman. He said many settlement payments of $50,000 in that case were barely enough for down payments for farm equipment. The settlements also triggered costly tax obligations because the Internal Revenue Service treated them as income, Scott said.

Scott said the March relief bill avoids that problem by providing 120 percent debt relief on outstanding direct and guaranteed loans held by socially disadvantaged farmers as defined under the 1990 farm bill. That definition applies to agricultural producers “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.” African Americans, American Indians or Alaskan natives, Hispanics, and American Asians or Pacific Islanders are covered by the term.

Eligible farmers would have their outstanding loan balances paid off and receive 20 percent of that balance for the tax bill.

Vilsack said the department is trying to determine the number of direct loans from the USDA and the loans held by private banks guaranteed by the department. He estimated there could be 13,000 to 15,000 loans covered.

Congress provided an estimated $4 billion for loan debt relief and $1 billion to expand the network of Black land-grant universities, nonprofits and other institutions to provide technical assistance, access to credit and legal assistance to help resolve unclear ownership claims to land handed down through families without wills or documentation.  

Scott and Vilsack said the Agriculture Department has made progress in addressing specific acts of discrimination. But Vilsack said more must be done to dig deeper to address systemic discrimination and win the trust of Black farmers.

Philip Haynie III, the chairman of the National Black Growers Council, said farmers he knows are not always sure that local USDA workers are telling them the truth when they say funds for programs have been exhausted.

Haynie recalled having a county USDA official pull out a loaded gun when he asked about a beginning farmer loan. Haynie, who did not say when the incident occurred, said the official told him to forget about farming and to get a job.

He said he and other Black farmers see white farmers who have put in irrigation systems for crops using USDA funds that are never available when they apply.

Lack of USDA accountability

Shirley Miller Sherrod, executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education Inc., said the department needs to do more outreach working with institutions trusted by Black farmers to overcome the mistrust. Sherrod noted that she had grown up on a farm in Georgia and decided to fight for Black farmers and rural communities after her father’s shooting death on March 25, 1965, by a white farmer in a dispute over cattle. The farmer who shot Sherrod’s father was charged three times, but a grand jury declined to indict him. 

Sherrod said that despite the findings of discrimination in the Pigford case, there’s no record of the Agriculture Department firing any officials involved in the incidents.

“To my knowledge, I, a Black woman, am the only person ever fired by the USDA for discrimination, a claim that was later disproven,” Sherrod said, referring to her dismissal in 2010 after a heavily edited video by a conservative blogger made it appear that she had discriminated against a white farmer at an organization before she joined USDA.

Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary under the Obama administration, quickly forced Sherrod out of her position as the USDA rural development director for Georgia. He and the White House apologized and offered Sherrod a different job after a review of the unedited video showed that Sherrod said she had put aside misgivings about aiding the farmer and became his advocate. Sherrod rejected the offer and eventually reached a settlement with the blogger.

Arnetta Cotton, co-owner and program facilitator of the Oklahoma-based Kingdom Community Development Services, said Sherrod was correct in her assessment that the USDA had sent a message to personnel that they can continue with business as usual.

“It’s the same people in the office who were there through Garcia, through Pigford and all of the others,” Cotton said, referring to a discrimination case by Hispanic growers, the lawsuit by Black farmers and other lawsuits. “They have not been let go.”

Vilsack said he was taking notes and that he expected the department to be more active about consequences for employees engaged in discrimination.

“We have got to restore trust,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack and several witnesses said a big challenge will be overcoming gaps between minority farmers and white farmers that USDA programs helped build. Vilsack noted that farmers who self-identified as minorities received $20 million in two rounds of COVID-19 direct payments while farmers who self-identified as white received $5.6 billion. He said the payments rewarded larger operations and production.

Many of those operations became larger because they had access to other USDA programs or subsidies that Black farmers historically had limited or no access to, Vilsack said. He said his announcement on Wednesday of a revamped COVID-19 round of at least $6 billion that will include increased outreach to minority and smaller farmers to increase their participation and share of payments.

John Boyd Jr., the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, advised Vilsack to be transparent and make it clear that USDA is changing. Boyd said Vilsack should deliver the message that “USDA is open for business for Black farmers. Say it with conviction.”