Is the USDA Still the Last Plantation?

During the Bush administration, 13,999 racial discrimination cases were swept under the rug at the Agriculture Department. What will Secretary Tom Vilsack do about it?

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That man who sits atop the federal government organizational chart is clear evidence of the enormous progress the country has made in regard to its troubled history with race relations. But it has very quickly become a dominant meme of the Obama age to debate the extent to which the stupendous changes at the top are reflective of meaningful change on the ground level.

We all know, despite the intensity of the debate, that the answer is an unequivocal, “It depends.” With at least one federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—maybe the one with the most troubled racial history—there is an urgent effort to try to remedy a long history of racial injustice and discrimination. The USDA was once popularly known as the “Last Plantation,” in recognition of the deeply ingrained culture of racism that manifested itself in both the way its programs were administered—and whom it hired, and didn't, to administer those programs.

Now, the Obama administration is making a concerted effort to correct that past reputation. One huge problem the agency faces at the very outset is that it’s not just dealing with history. In just the last eight years, more than 14,000 complaints of racial discrimination were filed with the USDA. The charges range from housing discrimination to racial bias in loan and subsidy programs to discriminatory hiring practices.

The Bush administration, which made clear that combating racial bias was not among its priorities, found that merely one of the 14,000 claims had any merit. Not one percent. One single claim.

But the truth is that most of the claims were not denied or rejected; they simply languished unattended to as the USDA neglected to investigate or otherwise adjudicate them. Indeed, reductions in staff during the Bush years eventually left the USDA without any investigative staff to look into these claims.

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