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Legacy of USDA Racism, Redux: Land is Power for Black and Indian Farmers

December 12, 2009

Earlier this week, a federal judge approved settlement talks in a case brought by Native Americans against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the agency’s decades of discriminatory treatment of Indian farmers. The Native farmers and ranchers are seeking repayment for $600 million of losses due to USDA’s failure to treat Indians equally under USDA farm loan and assistance programs.

Earlier this year, the National Congress of American Indians called for a swift resolution of the claims, which were first filed in 1999, and pointed to an expert report showing that USDA bias cost Native Americans “$500 million to $1 billion dollars of economic losses (and) the denial of $3 billion worth of credit.” The judge’s order in the USDA case comes on the heels of a $3.4 billion federal government settlement with Native Americans for decades of mismanagement of government established Native Trusts.

Native American farmers may learn from African American farmers’ experiences with USDA. In 1999, Black farmers entered into an historic settlement with the agency, which promised hundreds of millions of dollars for farmers who the agency’s loans and assistance programs discriminated against for decades. Then Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told the Washington Post that the agency was facing “substantial liability” and hoped the settlement would end the “painful chapter” in the department’s history. But just this year, a group of black farmers complained that USDA has still not paid compensation despite the decade-old settlement.

A citizens’ group in Tillery, North Carolina has established a Land Loss Fund to improve the lives of those who have lost land, especially in African American farm communities. The organization notes the power associated with land ownership and laments that “African Americans are losing land at a rate of 9,000 acres per week.” They also point to mid-1980’s USDA programs that funneled $1.3 billion to farmers nationwide to buy land, yet included just 209 Black farmers in the more than 16,000 farmers funded by the program.

The Tillery Resettlement Community is a legacy of a federal farm program for former sharecroppers. Today, Tillery is 98 percent African American; almost all of the community’s farming jobs have disappeared, replaced by low-paying factory jobs. The small farms have been mostly replaced by corporate hog farms, leading to water contamination issues for local residents.

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