Volume 8, Number 1                                                October 23, 2004

The Farmer

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BFAA Meets with Vernon Parker

by Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad

In 1982 the Republican president, Ronald Regan, basically shut down the Civil Rights Division at the USDA by cutting off funds to the legislatively mandated office. However, the continued pressure by Black farmers and in particular the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) has forced the Republican controlled government to reinstate the Civil Rights Division and elevated it to a sub-secretarial position. The first Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Mr. Vernon Parker met with BFAA members and other farmers on Thursday, October 14th in Tillery, NC to answer questions about "The Status of the Office of Civil Rights at USDA."

Many of the farmers present had specific issues concerning the Pigford v. Venneman (Glickman) class action lawsuit. Mr. Parker was quick to point out that because of the provisions in the court ordered consent decree, the USDA was no longer responsible for dealing with any issues concerning its implementation. However, his office has put into place certain initiatives and policies designed to prevent future discrimination or at least give clear guidance as to how farmers can proceed with a civil rights complaint about how their applications for services from the USDA local offices are handled.

Five farmers brought forward cases or problems with USDA. Mr. Parker pointed out that in some of the cases the farmers had to go through other channels other than the USDA, while he promised to immediately handle those cases under his jurisdiction. Mr. Parker’s scorecard on the handling of these cases will be taken up at 7th National Black Land Loss Summit to be held in Tillery, NC February 18 and 20, 2005.

One farmer asked "Why weren’t the loan officers fired who discriminated against Black farmers?"

One of Mr. Parker’s assistants, Mr. Hofeller, Director of FSA, answered by saying: "You have to understand that government workers have rights too. If we can get a probable case, we can take an action. Most is done covertly; therefore it is hard to prove anything. The farmers can use the new Customer Service Card to file complaints on issues of discrimination or service."

Mr. Parker assured the audience that once a county office receives a number of such complaints, his office would go to that office to make a full investigation.  You can find the procedures for filing complaints by going on line at: http://www.usda.gov/cr/OCR/Program%20Procedures.htm

The USDA has a unique way of managing how programs and funds are handled on a local level. Each county in the US has a "county committee" which hires USDA personnel and develops policies as to how loans are approved or how subsidies are dispensed. Black farmers have complained for years about this "good ole boy" system which favors the large white landowners in their counties. Many of the discrimination complaints against the USDA have been dropped in the laps of these "county committee" members who are not USDA employees and therefore are not subject to USDA discipline.

Until recently the USDA has feigned ignorance about the type of discrimination being levied out by this system. However, a researcher has discovered that from the very inception of the county committee system, experts have been warning the USDA about its fallacies. Dr Spencer Wood said, "In 1933, W.I. Blackstone warned that the committee system would not work. And Tugwell said in 1935 that the committee system was not grass roots democracy by ‘grass tops democracy’."

A farmer in the audience asked, "What are you going to do in the future to move this forward?"

Mr. Parker answered by saying,

" We admit that the USDA has had some problems, but one of our achievements is that we have entered into a memo of understanding with Marriott Hotels to buy produce from black farmers. We want you to understand what it took to get to this point. Pigford did not deal with the cause of the discrimination. The changes that we have brought to you today will bring fruits tomorrow. Why don’t you be supportive of the things that we are trying to do, so that we can do more? I want to give a public acknowledgement of the good work of Mr. Grant in bringing these issues to the forefront."

Mr. Grant responded by saying,

"The Asst. Sec. of Ag for Civil Rights is a position that grew out of the Black farmers struggle. This is a victory of the movement to get these positions and programs put in place that will have an effect. It pains me when black groups and 1890s wind up divided. The farmers came to the government to get back the land, not $50,000. We appreciate what you are doing but it is your job to take the heat. Black folk have always been the conscious of this country and will always be."

Attorney Stephon Bowens also updated the audience on the status of Attorney Alexander Pires who was the lead attorney for the Black farmers in the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit. Many Black farmers feel that Mr. Pires messed up their chance for justice by producing a consent decree that allowed the government to pick and choose who they would compensate and relieve their debt.

Mr. Bowens said,

"The court has asked other attorneys to step in and help Mr. Pires in other class action lawsuits against the USDA for which he is responsible including the Black farmers, women farmers, Latino farmers and Native American farmers. He has been sanctioned and had to pay to the courts approximately $1 million for failure to comply with the courts orders in conjunction with the Black farmers (Pigford) lawsuit."

Although the courts in D.C. seem to have slapped Mr. Pires on the wrist, these penalties do not help the thousands of Black farmers who failed to prevail in the lawsuit and now are facing foreclosure. Mr. Parker suggested that the Black farmers need a legislative remedy to address their losses.

Thus, we must say that it will take the outcry of 40 million Black people in unison to make the powers on the Hill respond with justice. The unity of 40 million Black people united to survive is the only thing that will stop this government from playing the three branches shell game with justice as the "pea". When the three powers on the Hill (executive, legislative and judicial) feel the power of the people, only then will they figure out a way to give justice to the most recent victims of illegal land grabs, i.e. the Black farmers.