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U.S. to pay black farmers $1.25 bil. in racism settlement

Following a ruling Friday by a federal judge, thousands of farmers who endured racial discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s should start receiving portions of a $1.25 billion settlement.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said in his written opinion that the proposed settlement, which creates a system of compensation for black farmers and their descendants who joined the class-action suit claiming discrimination by the government, is fair and workable.

“Historical discrimination cannot be undone,” Friedman wrote.

There are two compensation streams available to the farmers, depending on the individual paper trail in each case. The first stream, known as “Track A” would provide an uncontested payout of $50,000 to qualified claimants. The second stream, known as “Track B,” could provide up to $250,000, but requires more documentation of wrongdoing. Farmer must choose one track or the other, and it is estimated that nearly 70,000 farmers across the nation will be eligible for compensation. More details regarding the plan can be found in an earlier report by The Iowa Independent.

The black farmers’ case is an outgrowth of Pigford v. Glickman, a federal class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999. The farmers alleged that the USDA had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by maintaining a pattern and practice of discrimination against African American farmers. Such pattern and practice delayed, denied, or otherwise frustrated the efforts of African American farmers to obtain loan assistance and to engage in the vocation of farming, they said.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/chuck_grassley_125.jpgChuck Grassley

The Obama administration agreed in February to provide a second round of damages to people who were denied earlier payment because they had missed filing deadlines. The person who pushed to allow more black farmers to join the case and for more money to be set aside for settlements was Iowa’s own U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. In a February press release, Grassley noted that “many people were shut out of the process.”

But not all elected officials have been similarly supportive. U.S. Rep. Steve King said in November 2010 that the American people should be outraged by the development, since it sends the message that “if you’re a minority, you deserve a check from the government.”

The Obama administration is “focused on race,” King said in an interview with WHO-AM’s Jan Mickelson. Essentially, the entire lawsuit was pitched to black farmers as their “40 acres and a mule,” he added, referencing the Civil War era practice of providing land to former slaves who became free as Union armies occupied areas of the Confederacy.

“The Department of Agriculture has admitted that discrimination occurred,” Grassley said during a Senate floor speech on the matter. “We are obligated to do our best in getting those who deserve it, some relief. This is a chance for people who believe they were wronged to show their case before a neutral party and have it judged on the merits. It’s time to give justice to these claimants who were previously left out, and move forward into a new era of civil rights at the Department of Agriculture.”

More recently U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, while on a tour of flooded areas near the Missouri River in Iowa, characterized the government settlement with black farmers as fraud. Bachmann and King, while noting the damage done by the flooded Missouri, said the money set aside for the discrimination settlements could have been put to better use if it had been given to the flood victims.

It isn’t the first time that King and Bachmann have beat on this particular drum. Bachmann sent out a press release last November alleging that the numbers of farmers involved in the settlement didn’t add up, because there were many more claims than black farmers — a claim nearly identical to what has been made by King. In addition, King has referred to the settlement as “slavery reparations.”

Final approval for the settlement came after a fairness hearing in early September. Although some farmers argued they should be allowed to pursue higher damages, Congress left little flexibility into the plan, which prevented Friedman from pursuing such alternatives.

In a statement distributed by the White House, President Obama said, “The U.S. District Court’s approval of the settlement between the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and plaintiffs in the Pigford II class action lawsuit is another important step forward in addressing an unfortunate chapter in USDA’s civil rights history. This agreement will provide overdue relief and justice to African American farmers, and bring us closer to the ideals of freedom and equality that this country was founded on. I especially want to recognize the efforts of Secretary Vilsack and Attorney General Holder, without whom this settlement would not have been reached.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is “thrilled” by the court’s decision, and looks forward to the process being completed.

Since my first day at USDA, I made it a priority to treat all Americans with respect and dignity and to ensure equal access to our programs. Court approval of the Pigford settlement is another important step to ensure some level of justice for black farmers and ranchers who faced discrimination when trying to obtain services from USDA. President Obama, Attorney General Holder and I are thrilled by the court’s approval so we can continue turning the page on this sad chapter in USDA history. In the months and years ahead, we will not stop working to move the Department into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider for all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.

Government officials estimate that it will take a year, if not more, for all the affected farmers to work their way through the compensation process.

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