USDA Unveils Blueprint for Fixing Civil Rights Issues

An independent report evaluating the Agriculture Department makes recommendations for fixing longstanding racial discrimination issues. A leader for black farmers says it doesn't address the agency's biggest problems.

Three months into his position as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack sent a memo to USDA employees promising an aggressive strategy to fix the racial discrimination issues long plaguing the department. The well-known Pigford Case, a successful class-action suit filed against USDA by black farmers for unfairly denying them loans, was just one example of the problem. For decades, the USDA—especially its local county committees, which administer farm loans throughout the rural South—has been known as “the Last Plantation” for discriminatory lending practices, land foreclosures and degrading treatment of African-American farmers.

“I have said many times that I intend to take definitive action to improve USDA’s record on civil rights and to move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider,” Vilsack said in the 2009 memo, which detailed his plans to review thousands of neglected Bush-era complaints against the agency, and to commission an independent, on-the-ground assessment of practices at their county offices. Two years later, that Civil Rights Assessment report (pdf) is here, with recommendations to help ensure fair and equal access to USDA programs.

Led by the Jackson Lewis Corporate Diversity Counseling Group, which has conducted similar civil rights evaluations for Fortune 500 companies, investigators went to the 16 states representing the majority of claims. They came back with more than 200 proposals for preventing inequities, whether intentional or unintentional, including monitoring customer service, documenting of interactions with the public, and creating a more streamlined program application process.

“These changes enhance the key elements of structure, accountability, incentives and penalities, cultural transformation, performance management, and other essential tools and measures of success,” says the report’s executive summary. According to USDA, many of the report’s recommendations have either already been, or are currently being, implemented, including:

* Holding managers accountable for using a diverse pool of applicants for job vacancies and promotions

* Requiring county officials to thoroughly explain the reasons why a loan or program application was denied, and what the applicant can do to improve their chances of getting approved in the future

* Promoting and distributing informational materials about programs and services throughout all USDA offices

Secretary Vilsack has formed an internal working group to implement other recommendations from the report, which he heralded as “a roadmap that will help us continue moving forward.” But a leader in the black farmers community is underwhelmed.

“Many of the issues raised in this report are nothing new,” John W. Boyd Jr, president of the National Black Farmers Association told The Root, explaining that Jackson Lewis’ recommendations are similar to proposals mentioned in a previous report from 1997 under former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. “The USDA already knows that this stuff exists.”