$1.5 Billion for Wealthy Arkansas Farmers; Nothing for Black Farmers

Apparently, the votes of white farmers in a key state trump the USDA's settlement of long-standing discrimination complaints -- especially in an election year.

An Aug. 2002 National Black Farmers Association protest in front of the USDA
in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The ire that black farmers and their advocates are currently feeling has two targets: the Senate's failure to vote the money to complete the farmers' settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and President Obama's recent generous offer to white Arkansas farmers. Both examples of political expediency are bitter reminders of black farmers' second-class status.

For five months, the Senate has blocked passage of legislation that contains money to fund the USDA's $1.25 billion settlement of the second bias suit lodged by black farmers. The agreement, called Pigford II, is supposed to redress past USDA racial discrimination cases.

In 1997 Pigford I, the first USDA settlement, provided 13,000 farmers with $50,000 each and debt relief. Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina farmer, and 400 other African Americans had filed a class-action suit against the USDA, alleging bias in allocation of farm loans and assistance. For decades their complaints were ignored or got a slow response. Pigford II occurred after the USDA admitted that thousands of other black farmers' claims from the 1990s went uninvestigated.

John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, says that bills to fund the settlement have failed seven times in the Senate, and a black-farmer attachment was taken out of the recent farm-aid disaster bill. "We have been working on our restitution for 26 years," Boyd says.

In August alone, Senate Republicans blocked the settlement twice. Gary R. Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, asks, "Don't these legislators in states suffering economically know the money will boost the income in their state?"

Money is the fuel of politics. But with the November polls looming, senators who vote to give anyone more than $1 billion, even if it was agreed on long ago, worry that voting to pay the black farmers could cost them re-election.

He recently traveled there four weeks in a row, meeting with senators from both sides of the aisle. But, Burkett says, the Democrats won't vote for the funding because they are terrified in an election year. The Republicans say that they won't vote for the funding as an attachment because they think it will encourage Democrats to attach similar requests. Regardless of either side's actual motives, they won't openly vote yes.

Undeterred, Burkett will visit the Senate again. The $1.25 billion is a raindrop in an ocean of federal money, and since it must be paid, there is no need for an offsetting cut. "Both sides just don't want to vote," he says.

Are White Farmers' Votes More Important Than Black Farmers' Livelihoods?

This summer the Obama White House promised Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln that farmers in her state would receive $1.5 billion, ostensibly for disaster-relief aid. Cynics, however, say the money is a payoff to the farmers along with their relatives, friends and other Arkansans to get them to vote for Lincoln in November.