Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Has Obama Burned Bridges with Crucial Demographic?

Sometime in the early 1980s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dismantled its civil rights enforcement arm – in secret.  For years, USDA employees dumped the discrimination-complaints of Hispanic, black, Native American and female farmers into an empty office at the USDA building in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, minorities who had  lost family farms to agribusiness, and to the denial of access to federal loans, celebrated the elections of 2008 as a turning point.   Presidential candidate Barack Obama had indeed promised to put things right.  But, four years later, the Obama Administration has Hispanic and women farmers still waiting for justice. These failing family farms are being bought out of bankruptcy court by agribusiness intent on introducing genetically modified crops, growth-promoting hormones in cattle and chemical pesticides, some of which are now being linked to childhood leukemia, Parkinson’s Disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 In 1999, the Clinton Administration settled the Pigford v. Glickman discrimination lawsuit brought by black farmers against the USDA, the first of four identical lawsuits brought on behalf of black, Native American, Hispanic and female farmers alleging discrimination by USDA in the administration of its farm programs. From the outset, there has never been any real dispute about the existence of that discrimination. Even Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, the original defendant in all four lawsuits, testified before Congress that:  "[g]ood people lost their family land . . . because of the color of their skin. . . ."    The Obama Administration, in 2010, settled a second suit that came to be known as Pigford II, which included a moratorium on foreclosures of claimants’ farms and payments to black farmers who had missed the deadline to participate in the earlier settlement.   Standing in the White House's South Court auditorium, President Obama signed the bill into law that funded the settlement, before an exuberant crowd of about 150 lawmakers from both political parties and black activists among others.   Missing in all the hoopla were Hispanic and women farmers, whose Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack lawsuits -- identical to the black and Native American farmers’ cases -- might as well have been dumped into an empty office in the Obama White House. 

The USDA’s long history of discrimination against black, Native American, Hispanic and female farmers is admitted and well documented.  Indeed, the Obama Administration had, in fact, offered to settle all four sets of cases by providing alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes to resolve the individual discrimination claims of the farmers. However, rather than offer the same ADR process to each victim group, the Obama Administration instead presented Hispanic and female farmers a settlement process that was qualitatively different from that given to black and Native American farmers.  Under its provisions, the criteria for what constituted evidence of discrimination against Hispanic and women farmers would demand little short of a signed confession by the USDA official perpetrating the discrimination.  In the black and Native American farmers’ cases, on the other hand, far less evidence has been required to prove discrimination.

 In January 2012, the government presented its latest proposed settlement for Hispanic and female farmers.  The Obama Administration called it the "Framework for Hispanic and Female Farmers’ Claims Process."   Black farmers in Pigford I were provided a two-track ADR process that permitted them to recover either $50,000 or such damages as they were able to prove without limitation, even though some cases ended up costing the federal government millions of dollars.  The Obama Administration, however,  placed a cap on damages for Hispanic and female farmers of $250,000 directly attributable the USDA’s discriminatory policies, regardless of farm size or losses.  This "Framework" also excludes the recovery of damages in the Hispanic and female farmers’ cases suffered by farming cooperatives.  No such restrictions were placed on settlement amounts in Pigford.  In fact, the Obama Administration forked over $13 million to a cooperative run by Shirley Sherrod, a claimant in the Pigford I suit.  This ex-USDA employee was in the news briefly when the Obama Administration hastily fired and then rehired her after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart mischaracterized remarks she had made, so as to sound racist. 

 Even though Hispanic farmers outnumber their black counterparts by a ratio of two to one, have larger farms with more profitable crops, the Obama Administration has offered Hispanic a settlement amount that is 59 percent of the amount that has either already been paid or appropriated to be paid to black farmers.  The lesser amount will also have to be shared with female farmers despite the fact that Hispanic and female-owned farms when combined outnumber black farm by a ratio of twelve to one.  In fact, virtually every stipulation in the "Framework" offered to Hispanic and female farmers is so onerous when compared to the Pigford settlement, that the Obama Administration’s goal seems merely aimed at cynically "shutting them up," rather than making them whole in ways that can restore their farming livelihoods.      

 The Obama Administration can certainly blame Congress for the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform that is favored by voters of Latino ancestry.  But it has no one to blame but itself if Hispanic and women farmers sit out this next election.  In short, the Obama Administration has stuck these two groups, who have been victimized by discrimination, with a "framework" of legal sleights-of-hand, and shifting goal posts that would have made agricultural officials in the Reagan Administration proud.