USDA civil rights nominee pledges to end discrimination

Vernon Bernard Parker, President Bush's nominee to be the first assistant Agriculture secretary for civil rights, told the Senate Agriculture Committee at his confirmation hearing last week that racial and sexual discrimination at the Agriculture Department must end-or the government will have to continue making large settlements to minorities and women.

"We can pay now or pay later," said Parker. "We can either invest in the prevention of civil rights abuses, or we can invest in the next landmark settlement eclipsing the $1 billion already committed to by this government."

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved Parker's nomination Wednesday, sending the nomination to the Senate floor. The Agriculture Department, which at one time practiced official segregation in its office operations in the southern states, has faced a series of discrimination suits from black farmers and from its own minority employees in recent years. Female employees of the U.S. Forest Service have also lodged a number of complaints, particularly in the western states. The 2002 farm bill created the position of assistant Agriculture secretary for civil rights.

"If confirmed," Parker told Senators last week, "it is my intention to work to root out discriminatory practices as weeds in the garden of democracy." Parker said he had "been blessed by a loving extended family," but had suffered from poverty as a child and "felt the discord of racism." He said that when his family needed government assistance, "I remember the embarrassment on my mother's and grandmother's faces when they could not understand the forms that they had to fill out at the welfare office for food stamps. I saw individuals take advantage of them because of their lack of sophistication and because they could not read that well. They both were products of the segregated South."

"It is my understanding that, today, at the Department of Agriculture, there may be people who have been, or are being denied services because of the color of their skin or their gender, people like my mother and grandmother. This is a practice which must be abolished."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., told Parker his opening statement was "the most eloquent" he had ever heard from a nominee to come before the committee.

A native of Texas, Parker grew up in California, received a bachelor's degree in finance from California State University and a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington. During the first Bush administration, Parker served in several positions at the Office of Personnel Management, including general counsel. In 1992, he was appointed a special assistant to the president responsible for the staffing and policy review of more than 300 presidential boards and commissions, including the African Development Foundation, the President's Commission on Small Business, the United States Trade Representative Board on International Trade, the President's Export Council and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Since leaving government in 1993, Parker has been a partner in a law firm, president and CEO of BelSante International LLC, an international nutritional supplement company, and interim senior pastor of a church in Paradise Valley, Ariz. He has also served on the national board of the Salvation Army.

The duties of the assistant secretary for civil rights include ensuring compliance with all civil rights and related laws, guaranteeing that USDA has measurable goals for fair and nondiscriminatory treatment, and holding Agriculture agency heads and holding senior executives accountable for civil rights compliance.

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