USDA Unveils Blueprint for Fixing Civil Rights Issues


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.”


Boyd, who was consulted as part of the report, says he talked to officials about the need for diversity on the mostly white county committees that make loan decisions around the country. “They need to take a stronger approach to fix that, either legislatively or through internal policy, to make it more comfortable for blacks and other minorities to be a part of that system. That has to be a priority if they really want to see more loans going to minority farmers,” he said.

A specific change that Boyd would like to see is voting rights for the minority advisors who counsel county officers on equitable lending. “They can advise, but they can’t vote, so they’re just sitting there and watching a lot of corruption take place. If they could actually vote on who loans are given to, that would really change the results.”


Boyd also thinks—now that the government has offered discrimination settlements for African-American, Native American, Hispanic and women farmers—that it’s time for some officials to step down from their posts. “There has to be some kind of accountability here,” he said. “We’ve had all these settlements, and we haven’t heard about anybody being terminated or penalized or fired. That needs to happen so those career bureaucrats will see that the department is no longer playing. Secretary Vilsack often makes statements about having ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, but I haven’t seen the accountability piece.”

But he says the biggest issue straining relationships between the USDA and black farmers, and perhaps the hardest one to remedy, is a lack of trust. “The farmers just don’t trust the government to make loans to them fairly. It’s going to be hard to get them to take a new chance on USDA,” Boyd said, suggesting that a special initiative to transform the very culture of the department is needed.


Despite his grievances with the Civil Rights Assessment report, Boyd has a bit of praise for the USDA’s efforts. “I give the Obama administration some credit for signing the black farmers bill and entering into agreements with the Indian, Hispanic and women farmers,” he said. “But from a holistic and long-term standpoint, more needs to be done to fix what we were all complaining about in the first place. And I don’t think we’re there yet.”