Carl Horowitz

Blacks account for about 1.5 percent of all farm operators in this country – and apparently a lot higher share of the civil rights lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On February 18, lawyers for the USDA and thousands of black farmers reached a $1.25 billion class-action agreement resolving, for now, claims that the department had engaged in willful racial discrimination in managing its loan and other aid programs.

Think you’ve seen this headline before? You have. Back in 1999, black farmers, armed with similar claims of racial bias, snagged a federal guarantee of $50,000 per plaintiff plus loan forgiveness and tax liability offsets. These two cases – and other pending ones – speak volumes about how “civil rights” has become little more than a pretext upon which to shake down employers and taxpayers under the guise of social justice. It also reveals more than a little about the insatiability of the plaintiff’s bar and the timidity of the federal government in the face of charges of racial discrimination.

The latest out-of-court settlement is contingent upon a likely appropriation of $1.15 billion on top of $100 million Congress set aside in May 2008 as part of a larger farm bill. Prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus are making sure colleagues feel the heat. “This settlement is a case where justice delayed will no longer be justice denied,” declared House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. “History has taught us to never give up when fighting for what is right. What happened to these farmers was wrong, and we now have the opportunity to make it right.”

But exactly what did happen? The more one examines the evidence, the more the conclusion emerges: This has been a shaky if not fraudulent case from the very start. It’s fitting irony that the Agriculture Department has brought many of its woes on itself. Here, then, is some background.

Back in 1994 the Department of Agriculture commissioned the Atlanta-based consulting firm of D. J. Miller & Associates to analyze its patterns of treatment of minorities and women. These were the Clinton years, and the entire executive branch was feeling extra pressure to root out discrimination. The Miller report concluded that minorities were underrepresented in USDA program participation and were getting less than their fair share of crop payments, disaster payments and Commodity Credit Corporation loans. The researchers could not determine the reasons for disparities due to “gross deficiencies” in data collection and analysis.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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