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Pigford/Obama in Review

2010 October 19

In March 2010, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack sent letters to congressional leaders requesting that funds be appropriated for the settlement of the Pigford II case, a discrimination suit against the USDA that began where the settlements of the Pigford case fell short.

The original lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was brought to the US Supreme Court in 1997 and settled in 1999, awarding $50,000 each to approximately 2,000 black farmers.  The settlement quickly expanded as others caught wind of the decision, ballooning to 22,721 claimants in 2000, when the settlement deadline arrived.

In ten years, however, the Pigford suit has paid out settlements to only 6,910 farmers.

Pigford II is an extension of the first suit, and aims to provide reparations to an additional 80,000 claimants who missed the deadline to file for the first settlement.

Vilsack requested the Senate’s support following the announcement of the settlement of the Pigford II case on Febraury 19, 2010, which awarded $1.25 billion to black farmers who were denied loans or access to farmer assistance programs under the USDA.  On September 29, more than seven months after the terms of the settlement were approved by the House, Vilsack once more urged Congress to approve the funding for Pigford II:

Black farmers throughout the country unfortunately faced discrimination in past decades when trying to obtain services from USDA. This discrimination is well-documented, the courts have affirmed this discrimination, and Congress has twice acknowledged the need to settle with those who have suffered from this discrimination. It is now time for Congress to pass the funding so the victims of this discrimination can get the opportunity to receive the compensation that they are due.

This promise, made after President Obama endorsed the Pigford II settlement on September 10, calling it a “priority” for his administration, has been left unfulfilled by Congress, despite receiving bipartisan support (with just dash of opposition from the right).

The inability of this administration to pass this bill in the Senate, a bill that has been the source of so much agreement from both sides of the aisle, is a problem that runs deeper than just a penny-pinching Congress.

Last month a spokesman for Harry Reid blasted Republicans for holding up Pigford II and Cobell—a settlement for Native American farmers and land-trust holders—saying that the GOP needs to “have the courage” to say “they are fundamentally opposed to ending this injustice for black farmers and Native American trust account-holders.”

Reid’s rhetoric is so over-the-top that he is undoubtedly compensating for something – his lack of action in getting the bill passed.

Democrats across the board need to get tough.  This is not breaking news.  But it has to start with President Obama, and so far this administration has failed to stick to their guns.  Slinging racist rhetoric across the aisle isn’t going to serve as reparations for victims of government racism.

If this bill is a “priority,” or if this issue is at all important, it should not be sitting on the shelf along with nearly 80,000 farmers who are waiting for justice.

The last straw came in early September when the Obama administration circulated a $20 billion dollar wish list to be attached to the stop-gap spending bill before the Congress recessed for the mid-terms.  This list included $1.2 billion for Pigford II and $3.4 billion for Cobell.  These measures were dismissed immediately as “unrealistic” and “inappropriate given the current political climate,” according to AP writer Andrew Taylor.  The GOP in turn celebrated the President’s failure, again.

Some still hold out hope that the lame-duck session following the elections will pass Pigford II; most are resigned to waiting for the new Congress to begin their agenda in January.  If this issue is a priority for you, then go to your Congressman and make your voice heard – we can’t wait for the President to make a change any longer.  We’ve waited too long already.

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