Facing South

The real story of racism at the USDA

Black Farmer Photo.jpgRight now, if you do a web search of the words "racism" and "USDA," the majority of links will steer you to coverage of this week's Shirley Sherrod affair, in which the African-American U.S. Agriculture Department staffer based in Georgia resigned after a conservative website reversed the meaning of a speech she gave last year to imply she would deny farm loans to whites.

It's an astonishing development given the history of race relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that "the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is well-documented" -- not against white farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and practices.

It's also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA's checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African-American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans.


Any discussion about race and the USDA has to start with the crisis of black land loss. Although the U.S. government never followed through on its promise to freed slaves of "40 acres and a mule," African-Americans were able to establish a foothold in Southern agriculture. Black land ownership peaked in 1910, when 218,000 African-American farmers had an ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.

By 1992, those numbers had dwindled to 2.3 million acres held by 18,000 black farmers. And that wasn't just because farming was declining as a way of life: Blacks were being pushed off the land in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 1920, one of out seven U.S. farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.

The USDA isn't to blame for all of that decline, but the agency created by President Lincoln in 1862 as the "people's department" did little to stem the tide  -- and in many cases, made the situation worse.

After decades of criticism and an upsurge in activism by African-American farmers, the USDA hosted a series of "listening sessions" in the 1990s, which added to a growing body of evidence of systematic discrimination:

Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials -- especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South -- spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA's local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn't spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.

Among those concluding that such racial bias persisted were the USDA's own researchers: In the mid-1990s, they released a report [pdf] which, analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, found "minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans."

Adding insult to injury, when African-American and other minority farmers filed complaints, the USDA did little to address them. In 1983, President Reagan pushed through budget cuts that eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights -- and officials admitted they "simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them" until 1996, when the office re-opened. Even when there were findings of discrimination, they often went unpaid -- and those that did often came too late, since the farm had already been foreclosed.

In 1997, a USDA Civil Rights Team found the agency's system for handling civil rights complaints was still in shambles [pdf]: the agency was disorganized, the process for handling complaints about program benefits was "a failure," and the process for handling employment discrimination claims was "untimely and unresponsive."

A follow-up report [pdf] by the GAO in 1999 found 44 percent of program discrimination cases, and 64 percent of employment discrimination cases, had been backclogged for over a year.


It was against this backdrop that in 1997, a group of black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. In all 22,000 farmers were granted access to the lawsuit, and in 1999 the government admitted wrongdoing and agreed to a $2.3 billion settlement -- the largest civil rights settlement in history.

But African-American farmers had misgivings with the Pigford settlement. For one, only farmers discriminated against between 1981 and 1996 could join the lawsuit. Second, the settlement forced farmers to take one of two options: Track A, to receive an immediate $50,000 cash payout, or Track B, the promise of a larger amount if more extensive documentation was provided -- a challenge given that many farmers didn't keep records.

Many farmers who joined the lawsuit were also denied payment: By one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. The Bush Department of Justice spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers' claims; many farmers feel their cases were dismissed on technicalities.


Shortly after coming into office, President Obama and his chief at the Department of Agriculture, Iowa's Tom Vilsack, signaled a change in direction at USDA. Vilsack declared "A New Civil Rights Era at USDA," and stepped-up handling of civil rights claims in the agency.

This year, Vilsack and the USDA also responded to concerns over handling of the Pigford case, agreeing to a historic second settlement -- known as Pigford II -- in April that would deliver another $1.25 billion to farmers who were excluded from the first case. As Vilsack declared:

We have worked hard to address USDA's checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed. The agreement reached today is an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good.

But the Pigford II case was very much still alive when right-wing media outlets went after Shirley Sherrod this week. Sherrod herself had received $150,000 from the USDA last year as part of the original Pigford lawsuit, which has been bitterly opposed by Republicans and conservative media.

The settlement is also now a major political battle in Congress: President Obama had put aside $1.15 billion in May to cover Pigford II cases, which the House later approved. But Republicans stripped the money out of their bills, leaving the supplemental spending now being debated in the Senate as the final option to appropriate the funding.

Given the stakes of the Pigford II decision -- which again affirms the present-day consequences of decades of racial discrimination -- and the sharp partisan battle over spending in Congress, black farmer advocates don't think the attacks on Sherrod this week are a coincidence.

And given the history of racial discrimination at USDA, they can't help but note the hypocrisy. As Gary Grant, president of the 20,000-strong Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, said in a statement [pdf]:

The statement from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, that USDA does not "tolerate" racial discrimination is a complete lie. Talk to almost any family member of a black farmer or check out ... the government's documentation of how USDA employees, on the local and federal level discriminated against black farmers, in particular. And nothing was ever done to penalize the all white officials bent on destroying a society of black farmers across the nation: not one firing, not one charge brought, and not one pension lost. Yet at the first erroneous offering by a conservative blogger that a black woman from USDA might have discriminated, she is immediately forced to resign.

Which begs the question: Where was the Republican and conservative concern over USDA "racism" before this week's swiftboating of Shirley Sherrod?


People Referenced:


re: The real story of racism at the USDA

What an important factual collection. This would have been a great time for these facts to get out.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

Thanks. I learned a lot.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

The increase of the mere use of the word "racism" since Barack Obama was elected president is telling.

The sloppy handling of this "outing" of Ms Sherrod that ended up being a very poorly edited speech she gave to an NAACP meeting is an indication of the level of ignorance and malice that the perpetrators have in wanting to further divide whites and blacks in America today.

Don't buy this stuff. We- whites and blacks- were moving forward, carefully perhaps, but forward nonetheless in the days of the civil rights movement. There were forces out there who did not WANT to see whites and blacks work together. Those same forces exist today. Don't let 'em succeed.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

Gentrification of America, by removing one black landowner at a time.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

It is a shame that the Obama administration has allowed the USDA to continue to discriminate against racial minority farmers and women. This episode with Mrs.Sherrod should shed a very bright light on an agency that has managed to get by with systemic discrimination for far too long. My question is why wasn't Vilsack or his undersecretary fired for their mishandling of this whole affair? If anything it was the undersecretary that was the racist in this situation. She's the one that said that the administration wanted Mrs. Sherrod out and decided to try and humiliate her by having her pull over to the side of the road to tender her resignation by blackberry. The administration is now hiding this woman to avoid answering the questions from the press that the administration, in the personage of Vilsack, should have asked when this lie of a story broke.Now according to Mrs. Sherrod the majority of those USDA administrators who discriminated against minority farmers are still employeed by the USDA, why if they are so adamant about rooting out racism at USDA? I suspect that Gayle Cook is one of those racists that Mrs. Sherrod spoke of who saw an opportunity to get rid of her and jumped at the chance. I'm sure that she and the rest of her ilk had a very big party that night to celebrate what they thought was the demise of a thorn in their side.Wrong!!!!

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

How true this is! If you go to muckraker Brietbart's website now (though I don't recommend it), you will see an interview with Congressman King vowing to open an investigation of Sherrod's "role" in the Pigford case if Republicans gain control of the house. Does anyone else see a future for the resurrection of the vast rightwing conspiracy that plagued Clinton if Republicans take control of congress?

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

These stories are painful and yet so important and vital to our communities in understanding where we are, how we got here and where we need to move. Thanks for sharing this. I will share widely.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

You are so right

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

This is Bob Zellner, a life long friend of Civil Rights Legend, Rev. Charles Sherrod and his gentle, strong as steel magnolia partner Shirley Sherrod.

In her serene way, Ace Organizer Shirley, has become President Obama's teacher. She didn't ask for an apology - just the opportunity to share her experience with a less experienced community organizer, Barrack Obama.

Ms Sherrod's lesson was not to fear the opposition to the extent that you fall into their rightwing trap. Video terrorist Brithurt agitated the administration to fire Shirley Sherrod, then laughed at them for doing his bidding. Ben Jelous at the NAACP, also taking the bait, had to be bailed out by an experienced Julian Bond.

Shirley asks why Obama bends over backward to appease the right wing when we all know they will never be satisfied and will never tolerate a black president!

In struggle,
Bob Zellner

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

I am new to the USDA but I can tell you one thing; if i see any of this kind of racism going on I will not hesitate to document it and report it and get it taken care of. I don't understand racism. God created us to love each other. He also let us know we need to be bold about standing up for what is right. I pray that USDA employees will do the right thing and bring a good name to this organization.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

When President Clinton left office there was no economic crisis. Remember that President Bush handed out money that was excess of President Clinton's tenure. Now, all of a sudden, when we have a black president, the country is going to hell in a hand basket. True, that aliens and citizens send money out of the country by the truck loads, but the fact that big business, shady public and political figures have been and are participating in a large scale conspiracy against people of color (not just Blacks, but Hispanics, Oriental, Middle Eastern and poor Whites also), is only a testament to the fact that terrorists are running the country, whether behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, or beside the scenes. There are plenty of groups and individuals in America that are having a hissy fit because Obama is President. These same groups would be prosecuted as terrorist organizations and subversives, if the climate of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, truth and justice EXISTS for all the people.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

If you want more information on bureaucratic terrorism, land lynching and the common thread between institutional terrorism and what is happening to our vets and farmers, check out my two books, Land, Legacy and Lynching: Building the Future for Black America,
and Fuel on the Fire: Veterans and Farmers Under Siege.
Available on my author website:

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

I'm not a farmer, but I don't have to be to recognize right and wrong. Because injustice has taken place, justice must be served. It isn't a republican/democratic issue, but a moral issue. I only hope that the wrong that has been done over many years will be righted; regardless of the dollar amount. I just pray that only those who deserve compensation will be on the receiving end.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

Shirley Sherrod admitted on videotape that she discrimated against a white farmer. She should have been fired. And, the white farmer should be able to sue for discrimination, just as the black farmers did. Was Sherrod a farmer herself in the past? Why would she get a settlement of $150,000 from the USDA?
Seems to me she behaved badly in the past and benefitted from it.

re: The real story of racism at the USDA

As an author, researcher, and grand daughter of black farmers, I find such knee jerk statements ignorant and self-serving. The issue is NOT black bureaucrats discriminating against white farmers, but white USDA bureaucrats driving black and white family farmers out of business.
Let's set the record straight--again. Sherrod did not "discriminate" against a white farmer. The agency she worked for helped under-served black farmers; Sherrod was actually instrumental in saving that white farmer's farm--if you look at the entire story, instead of a snippit. She helped that white farmer on her own time.

"We find it ironic that in the one hundred years of USDA’s history of discrimination, not a single white person has been dismissed for discrimination, however, a Black women who is doing her job well is falsely accused of discrimination in an altered video and you decide that she can no longer do a credible and nondiscriminatory job of dispensing USDA rural development programs and must resign."
For greater detail about land lynching and the connection between the way federal bureaucracies treat farmers and veterans see my book:Fuel on the Fire: Veterans and Farmers Under Siege.
Available on my author website: