Carl Horowitz

Timothy Pigford’s gift keeps on giving.  Taxpayers, unfortunately, aren’t likely to be in such a giving mood.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last month announced a $760 million settlement of a civil suit in which American Indian farmers and ranchers claimed discrimination at the hands of USDA program administrators.  The agreement follows similar out-of-court settlements this year with black and Hispanic plaintiff-farmers.

The case at hand is Keepseagle v. Vilsack.  Brought forth over a decade ago by nearly 900 Native American farmers and ranchers – the number would expand – the suit claimed that USDA during 1981-99 denied credit to Indians based on their ancestry.  As a result, the plaintiffs alleged, they could not pay off debts and subsequently lost part or all of their land.

The nominal defendant, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, true to form, was contrite without getting specific:  “Today’s settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination.  The Obama administration is committed to closing the chapter on an unfortunate civil rights history at USDA and working to ensure our customers and employees are treated justly and equally.”  President Obama likewise called the resolution “an important step forward in remedying USDA’s unfortunate civil rights history.”  With people like that in charge, capitulation was only a matter of time.

Unfortunately, this lawsuit, like those filed against the USDA filed by black, Hispanic and female farmers, merits far less sympathy than headlines would suggest.  For it rests on an implicit assumption that a mere claim of discrimination suffices as proof.  The plaintiffs, here as elsewhere, introduced no hard evidence that they, a particular class of persons, had been singled out for denial of farm loans.

But evidence was less important than sustaining a grand narrative of social oppression and the need for enforced “healing.”  Apparently, being a member of a racial/ethnic minority is in itself a moral and hence legal entitlement.  This is an extension of the view that low rates of residential mortgage approval must be due to lender prejudice, not borrower creditworthiness.  One can see all too well where that assumption has gotten us.

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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