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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Recently, Obama’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, announced the results of a review of the 14,000 Bush-era cases, in which more than 3,800 were found to have potential merit. The agency will hire a staff of 15 investigators to pursue these and other civil rights claims. In September, Vilsack also announced the signing of an $8 million contract with Jackson Lewis Corporate Diversity Counseling Group to assess the USDA’s programs and offer recommendations to remedy the past and current problems related to civil rights.

Vilsack has said repeatedly that fixing his agency’s reputation and practices on civil rights is a top priority. In a clear departure from the Bush administration, earlier this year he persuaded retiree Pearlie Reed, a 34-year veteran of the department to oversee the work of reducing the backlog.

As assistant secretary of administration, a position he held in an acting capacity before his retirement, Reed is in charge of making sure that racial discrimination is a thing of the past at USDA. Reed, who is black, grew up in Arkansas and said that at the USDA he saw all of the same abuses that existed in the racially segregated America of his youth.

In one glowing tribute to Reed on the floor of the Senate earlier this year, Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, said: “Pearlie has said that one of his proudest moments in his career came when he was asked to lead the Agriculture Department’s task force on civil rights in the 1990s. He led a team that issued a report containing 37 recommendations on how to ensure that the department is a welcoming place for minorities. Pearlie briefed President Clinton personally, and the president issued an order that all 37 of his recommendations be implemented.”

That explains, in part, why Reed was willing to come out of retirement for this job. “This may seem like an immodest statement,” Reed told me, “but I don’t think there is a better person for this job than me anywhere.”