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.
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.”
Reed said that in his experience, about 20 to 30 percent of the 3,800 hundred claims would be found to be legitimate. And after eight years of neglect, that is good news for the farmers, ranchers and other claimants, who may be hoping that justice delayed does not equal justice denied.
But there is, of course, a catch: The statutes of limitations on most of these civil rights claims is two years from the time of filing—which means that for more than 80 percent of the 3,800 potentially valid cases, the statutes of limitations have already expired. There is nothing the USDA can do about it.
The only path forward to a resolution or some kind of compensation in most of these cases is for Congress to extend the deadline or to exempt these claims from the existing statutes of limitations.
No legislation to that effect has yet been filed.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.