The Last Plantation
Spurred by the complaints of African-American farmers and its own employees, the Agriculture Department is finally moving to deal with its legacy of discrimination.
ast Dec. 12, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House looked like a scene out of the 1960s: A group of African-American farmers marched, protesting that they were being forced off their land and becoming an "endangered species" because the Agriculture Department had discriminated against them in its farm programs. USDA, the farmers charged, was "the last plantation," a white-dominated bureaucracy conspiring to help white farmers buy their land cheap.
Like the black farmers, USDA's minority and women employees have been charging discrimination for years, but their cause did not have quite the same appeal to the press and officials as people losing their land. The same day black farmers marched, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman noted that the civil rights problems of its customers and its employees were intertwined, and he appointed a civil rights action team to investigate complaints from both sides of the fence.
On Feb. 28, Glickman announced a new civil rights policy and a series of reforms which, if fully implemented, could expand the civil rights revolution to three places that it apparently has not reached: the plantation country of the Old South, the western states with large American Indian populations and the offices of USDA itself.
Many "ifs" need to be overcome for Glickman's initiative to go down in history as more than good intentions, but clearly it would make major changes in an agency that once practiced official segregation in both employment and program delivery. It's also clear that it will be much easier for Glickman to change employment policies than to improve treatment of minority farmers, at least in the short run.
Glickman has already promised to speed up resolution of employee civil rights disputes and appointed Pearlie S. Reed, an African-American career civil servant who was associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and who heads the civil rights action team, as acting assistant secretary for administration, with beefed-up civil rights enforcement powers.
While Glickman believed he had the authority to address most of the employees' complaints, he, the civil rights action team and USDA lawyers concluded that Congress has to change some laws before USDA can improve its treatment of minority farmers.
The Civil Rights Task Force determined that the root cause of the black farmers' problems lies in control of the more than 1,000 farmer-elected county committees. These committees certify farmers for participation in farm programs and hire the 12,000 county employees who work for USDA's Farm Services Agency, to which farmers report for their subsidies and loans. The General Accounting Office has reported that a quarter of the 101 counties with the largest concentration of minority farmers had no minority employees in the county offices. Glickman has said he will ask Congress to make changes in the election procedures for those committees so that more minorities will get elected.
USDA pays the salaries of the 12,000 county staffers, and Glickman has said they should become federal employees so that USDA can make sure they follow civil rights laws. As of early April, Glickman's civil rights team had not decided whether to simply recommend that Congress federalize the positions or to "grandfather" the current employees so that they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Resistance from some members of Congress, county committees and-if their jobs are threatened, county employees-is expected to be strong.
USDA's civil rights plan is supposed to be implemented departmentwide, which won't be easy. The department has 90,000 full-time employees, and its divisions range from the Farm Services Agency, where the problem is straightforward discrimination against African-American farmers and employees, to the Foreign Agricultural Service and the U.S. Forest Service, in which the problem is lack of recruitment of minorities and women.
But Glickman has left no doubt about his determination to fix USDA's civil rights problems. Civil rights "is going to be my legacy in this place," he has told reporters. "We're going to shape this place up, period."
African-Americans who call USDA "the last plantation" note with irony that President Lincoln created the Agriculture Department as the "people's department" in 1862, the same year he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When the Civil War ended in 1865 and the federal government occupied the southern states during the Reconstruction period, freed slaves in the South began buying land.
Dallas Smith, an African-American USDA career civil servant who is acting undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, still treasures copies of the deeds for land his ancestors bought in North Carolina and which is still farmed by his brother. Smith said African-Americans placed a high priority on buying land in the 19th century because it was the best way to improve their economic status and because landowners had the right to vote-although that right was later taken away in the southern states by various political maneuvers.
The Agriculture Department's unequal treatment of black farmers began as Reconstruction gave way to the era of segregation. The same year USDA was created, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which gave land grants to the states to establish colleges of agricultural and mechanical arts. The Morrill Act made no distinction regarding education of African-American farmers. In 1890, Congress passed the Second Morrill Act, whose primary purpose was to establish annual appropriations for the land grant colleges, to be distributed through USDA. The Second Morrill Act forbade racial discrimination in admissions policies for colleges receiving federal funds, but allowed states to escape this provision by establishing and maintaining "just," though not necessarily equal, institutions.
So 16 black land grant institutions-known today as the historically black colleges-plus the private Tuskegee University became part of the land grant educational network in which the Agriculture Department plays a role. In 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act created a network of county "extension" agents to bring the knowledge generated at the land grant colleges and their agricultural experiment stations to farmers and consumers, it included a separate "Negro" extension service in the southern states staffed primarily by graduates of the colleges created in 1890.
Smith says that when he was growing up he had three professions open to him-teacher, preacher or county extension agent. He graduated from North Carolina A&T State University and started his career in 1965 as a "Negro" county extension agent in Bladen County, N.C. Like the schools, the extension services were far from equal, Smith recalls. For example, although the majority of Bladen County's population was black, the white extension service had several specialists, while he was expected to help farmers with every kind of question. One one black woman agent was expected to advise black farmers' wives on nutrition and modern food preparation techniques.
Just as some African-Americans now say segregated schools had the advantage of being black-run institutions filled with teachers and administrators who were role models for children, Smith notes that black farmers trusted black extension agents as people who would answer their questions honestly.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Roosevelt administration set up the New Deal agricultural production control and subsidy programs, no provision was made for African-American farmers. The 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which amended the 1935 Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, provided for a system of farmer-elected committees in every county to administer the farm programs.
The county committees were set up for two reasons. The federal government had little presence in many areas of the country, and New Dealers believed the county committee system would be the easiest and quickest way to get the programs under way and keep them going. The committees also addressed the opposition of congressional conservatives, who feared communist-style control of agriculture by federal officials. Other, later acts created farmer-elected committees to administer farm loan and soil conservation programs.
In the segregated South, where African-Americans' voting was restricted, the committees were inevitably white-controlled and hired white staffs to administer the benefits. Smith says black farmers often tried to avoid participation in farm programs out of fear that white farmers would use the programs to take control of their land. For some crops such as tobacco and peanuts, participation was necessary because the federal government set quotas on how much could be sold in the markets, but Smith says that if quotas were increased, black farmers assumed white farmers would qualify first for the increases.
Over the years, however, black farmers began to lose their fear of the government and began participating in farm programs and taking out government loans, using their land as collateral. As blacks moved north, the heirs to the land also began renting it out, and some of the renters used the land as collateral for loans without the knowledge of the owners.
Access to government programs intended to help farmers has not kept the number of farms owned by African-Americans from dropping, however. In 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, 14 per cent of the total number of U.S. farms. By 1992, the last time the Census of Agriculture was taken, there were only 18,000, one percent of total farms.
The number of black farmers is now so low that they face "being reduced to nothing more than a page in the history books," says David H. Harris Jr., executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, a public interest law firm created by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers in 1983.
Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s first highlighted the problem, individual farmers and lawyers, including Harris, have charged that county committees, county employees and USDA loan officers have treated black farmers with hostility and indifference. In some cases, farmers have charged, the officials engaged in conspiracies to win control of their land.
Farmers say Agriculture officials have told them that offices were out of subsidy, conservation or loan application forms, have delayed processing so that their payments or loan funds arrived so late that they were unable to buy fertilizer, and have foreclosed on their land and sold it cheaply at auction, most often to whites. At the end of 1996, there were 495 program discrimination complaints pending against USDA.
"It's good to know that you're saying we're not going to have foreclosures, but what are you going to do about those hundreds of thousands of acres of land that have been lost, hundreds of thousands of black farmers who have been put out of business because of the policies that were adverse to them?" one Memphis, Tenn., farmer told the civil rights team.
The Agriculture Department, meanwhile, long practiced segregation in its own employment practices. Smith says that when he arrived at USDA in 1967, all the black professionals in the department's headquarters offices would have fit in his current office.
While it's hard to compare federal agencies on their attitudes toward race, the report of the civil rights action team appointed by Glickman acknowledges that USDA was "one of the last federal agencies to integrate and perhaps the last to include women and minorities in leadership positions," is "considered a stubborn bureaucracy and slow to change" and is "perceived as playing a key role in what some see as a conspiracy to force minority and socially disadvantaged farmers off their land through discriminatory loan practices."
In 1995 GAO charged that USDA was one of four federal agencies with "no formal mechanisms" to hold agency heads accountable for affirmative employment programs. According to the General Accounting Office, senior managers at USDA do not participate in the preparation of affirmative action programs. Another study found that the assistant secretary for administration had overall responsibility for ensuring that divisions of USDA comply with civil rights rules and regulations, but was not involved in the performance appraisals of agency heads and senior executives. As a result, the civil rights action team concluded, "accountability has not cascaded down throughout USDA's massive field structure."
Before preparing its report, the civil rights action team reviewed the history of studies on USDA's civil rights problems and sponsored 12 "listening sessions" across the country to gather the opinions of users and beneficiaries of USDA services and employees. A 13th session in Rapid City, S.D., was canceled due to bad weather. Either Glickman or Deputy Agriculture Secretary Richard Rominger attended almost all of the sessions.
Hundreds of Agriculture Department employees showed up to speak at the Jan. 22 session in Washington dedicated to employee concerns. One employee charged that "civil rights is buried in the back of the building," and said that Glickman should "move EEO physically to the highest levels of the department." Jeremy Wu, president of USDA's Asian Pacific American Network in Agriculture, testified that there is not one Asian Pacific American in USDA's Senior Executive Service.
In its report, the civil rights action team found a general lack of civil rights leadership within USDA but singled out two divisions for special criticism. The team wrote that USDA's Office of General Counsel, which is supposed to be the department's principal legal adviser on civil rights, has only one
black male attorney and no attorneys with a specialization in civil rights. The team also noted that employees believe that U.S. Forest Service managers retaliated against employees who filed race and sex discrimination complaints by putting them on a "surplus list" of positions to be reduced, eliminated or moved. The team also said USDA's Office of Equal Opportunity had been more interested in settling individual cases than making changes that could improve the overall situation for employees.
While employees at the Jan. 22 "listening session" expressed bitterness, the afternoon session devoted to minority farmers turned into a media spectacle. When Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Paul Johnson, who was moderating the session, called on James W. Myart Jr., a San Antonio, Texas-based attorney for the National Black Farmers Association, to testify, Myart refused to relinquish the microphone after his allotted five minutes. In fact, he held the stage for a full 40 minutes, giving many of his clients a chance to speak. He called several Agriculture Department officials racists.
While Myart held the stage, a group of black farmers carried a banner with a racist message so that photographers and TV news cameras could get pictures with Glickman and other high-ranking USDA officials and the department's civil rights action team sitting in front of it. Robert Williams, a black farmer from Abilene, Texas, said the banner had been hung at his farm.
Williams did not tie the banner directly to USDA's civil rights problems, but said it was indicative of the problems faced by black farmers. Several years ago, after Williams could not pay back a USDA loan, he sued the agency, charging racial discrimination. The courts have ruled in Williams' favor, but the government has yet to settle with him.
In his Feb. 28 announcement, Glickman declared, "Every customer and every employee must be treated fairly and equitably and with dignity and respect. There are no exceptions. There are no excuses." And, he added, "there will be a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation of any kind" against employees who charge discrimination.
Glickman upheld the action team's recommendation that the backlog of farmer and employee complaints be eliminated in 120 days. Glickman called the plan "ambitious," but said he would "give Pearlie [Reed] the resources necessary to go for it." Glickman also gave Reed the authority to review the civil rights records of agency heads and sub-Cabinet officials and revise the performance review process to make civil rights a high priority. He also vowed to establish a civil rights arm at the Office of the General Counsel.
The civil rights action team has since been disbanded. Now it's up to an implementation team to work out details of the legislation Glickman has endorsed and to decide whether to move forward on the recommendations Glickman said need further review. One recommendation insiders say is causing controversy within the department is to place not only the offices of civil rights and small and disadvantaged business under the assistant secretary for administration, but also the chief financial and information officers who now report directly to the secretary.
Glickman's strongest action to help minority farmers was his issuance of a permanent policy of suspending foreclosures in cases of alleged discrimination until the circumstances can be reviewed by "an independent, diverse team," meaning that the team must include persons other than white men.
Glickman acknowledged, however, that "the only way to ensure accountability" is for Congress to pass legislation that will convert non-federal county positions in the Farm Service Agency offices to federal status and to allow him to appoint women and minorities to the county committees if they are not elected in areas where they are a large part of the farm population.
Glickman has also acknowledged that the problems of minority farmers are exacerbated by the fact that many have small landholdings. Glickman has promised to appoint a commission on small farms, but such a commission will have to take into account congressional pressures to make USDA operations more efficient. As the civil rights action team's report says, "county loan officers are rewarded based on the total number of acres served by program dollars, for having low default rates, and for dispensing all of the funds allocated to them-a performance management system that rewards service to large, financially sound producers while working against small minority farmers."
Beyond Black Farms
Even if the Agriculture Department follows through on all of the civil rights action team's recommendations, it will only be the beginning of addressing USDA's civil rights problems.
The Census of Agriculture shows that the number of Asian American and Hispanic farmers has actually grown over the course of this century, but the number of acres they farm has gone down and they still complain that USDA employees do not treat them fairly. The number of active women farmers has also grown, as has the number of acres under their control, but they also say they are not treated as well as white men.
In addition, USDA faces special challenges in trying to improve services to Native Americans. Alvin Windy Boy, secretary of the Montana-based Intertribal Agriculture Council and president of the Montana/Wyoming Indian Stockgrowers Association, told a House subcommittee on Mar. 19 that Indian farmers are far behind in economic development because until 1979 USDA did not provide services to Indian farmers on Indian lands. Today Indians are eligible for services, but are often distant from Farm Service Agency offices. Ron McNeil, president of Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., says that the situation varies dramatically from region to region and that in the Upper Midwest there are many Indian farmers with individual holdings who are not well served.
Even though the problems of USDA employees seem more easily addressed than those of the department's clients, the employee agenda looms large. The civil rights action team's report says, for example, that women employees of the Forest Service feel particularly badly treated and that Asian American employees believe there is a "sticky floor" beyond which they cannot get promoted. It also notes that, while USDA has a policy of nondiscrimination toward gay employees, many gay workers believe they must remain closeted. A representative of GLOBE, USDA's gay employees' association, says the problem of discrimination could be felt even in the Washington listening session when an employee who was testifying identified himself as heterosexual, and the audience "giggled."
Minority leaders have praised the civil rights action team's report. David Harris Jr., executive director of the North Carolina-based Land Loss Prevention Project, which tries to help black farmers keep their land, said it was a "shock" that the department "pulled the covers down so far."
Now the question is how effectively the report gets implemented. Reed says the effort is moving ahead on schedule, but says even he sometimes wonders "how long I can work at USDA after releasing a report like that."
Jerry Hagstrom is a contributing editor to National Journal.
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