Justice Still Delayed for Black Farmers

Last year President Obama signed a bill settling a discrimination suit filed by thousands of black farmers, but conservative bloggers are calling their claims a massive fraud. The president of the National Black Farmers Association pushes back with his side of the story.

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John W. Boyd Jr. (Getty Images)

John W. Boyd Jr., the steadfast leader of the National Black Farmers Association, was in high spirits last December. President Barack Obama had just signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion to settle a long-standing discrimination case filed by thousands of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The feat was hailed as a landmark civil rights victory, and Boyd was relieved to finally see justice for his constituents.

Two months later, he now says that their last hope is in danger. Driven by mostly anonymous anecdotes and misinformation from conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart (of grossly edited Shirley Sherrod video fame), an online campaign alleges that the black farmers' legal claims are scams that threaten to swindle the government out of billions.   

The story dates back to a 1997 class-action lawsuit known as the Pigford case, brought by 22,721 black farmers against the USDA for unfairly denying them loans between 1983 and 1997 -- loans that were routinely given to white farmers. Of the claimants, 15,642 successfully proved discriminatory practices and received compensation in a nearly $1 billion government settlement.

About 72,000 more black farmers, who missed the lawsuit's filing deadline, were allowed to establish separate proceedings in 2008, collectively known as Pigford II. These late-filing applicants, whose $1.25 billion settlement President Obama signed into law last December, have been called into question. Although each claimant must first undergo an adjudication process, requiring substantial evidence of discrimination in order to receive payment, they've been called outright frauds.

A common misgiving in the conservative blogosphere is a discrepancy between the number of Pigford claimants and black farmers counted by the Census of Agriculture. While there have been more than 94,000 claimants (the combined number of applicants from both the original Pigford suit and Pigford II), the census never counted more than 33,250 black farmers in a single year between 1983 and 2007.

Boyd explains, and a December 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service confirms, that the census is a poor indicator of the actual number of black farmers. The census, for example, failed to recognize that many farming operations are run by more than one farmer. According to Boyd and the CRS report, census figures also do not account for black farmers who leased or rented farmland. Finally, the census numbers don't include the Pigford claimants who were not actually farmers, but people who attempted to farm and were denied loans.

Making matters worse for black farmers, many have been hustled by scam artists who are charging them fees for counterfeit claim forms. The Root talked to Boyd for his side of the story on fraud allegations, the slow-moving settlement process and his frustration with having to once again prove the black farmers' case.

The Root: When President Obama authorized the settlement, it was estimated that qualified applicants would receive compensation by August. Where are you in the payment process?

John W. Boyd Jr.: The case is being overseen by Judge Paul Freeman in federal district court, and he hasn't approved the late-filer process yet. There's not even a finalized claim form. Notifications have not been sent out to farmers to let them know it's time to file their claims. Nobody's claim has been adjudicated, and there hasn't been a dime paid out. So you can't paint a group of people as being fraudulent when none of their cases have been heard. We don't know yet who's eligible and who's not eligible.

JB: I don't know. I was hopeful that Judge Freeman would move expeditiously on this, like the two Native American lawsuits that we actually paved the way for -- the Keepseagle case and the Cobell case. Keepseagle is a lawsuit that American Indian farmers filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was settled for $760 million and given preliminary approval by a different federal judge. That case is off and moving.