Advocating for and Against Black Farmers

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We reported in the last issue of CR about the plight of black farmers and the nonprofits that were fighting on their behalf to secure justice. Even though a positive court decision supported the farmers’ rights, the federal government’s lack of diligent follow-up on the case has attracted the attention of Senators Barack Obama and Chuck Grassley in the Senate, and Congressmen Bobby Scott and Steve Chabot, in writing and supporting a bill that would extend the opportunity for black farmers to file for restitution for discrimination suffered at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One aspect of this case we didn’t mention was one that arose late last summer and clearly identified the Bush Administration’s stance on the effort to provide justice to the farmers who were denied justice despite their victory in the Pigford class action lawsuit against the USDA. Senator Obama happened to catch wind of an e-mail being circulated by Farm Services Administration staff in USDA suggesting that they contact members of Congress to lobby against the Pigford provisions in the Farm Bill. The USDA email referred to the extension of time for members of the Pigford class as “awful” and telling staff “to contact their senators and work hard to get it stopped.” The core message was this:

PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SENATOR TODAY CONCERNING THE FOLLOWING: DO NOT ALLOW LATE FILERS ON THE PIGFORD LAWSUIT. AMPLE TIME AND OPPORTUNITY WAS GIVEN DURING THE INITIAL SUIT TO FILE AND THIS LATE FILING WOULD BURY THE AGENCY AND COST TAXPAYERS BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IF THE 73,000 LATE FILERS ARE ACCEPTED Members, please step up and make your voice heard in this Farm Bill debate. I am willing to tell my Senators that I will not cast my vote for anyone who will not stand up and do what’s right instead of worrying about being politically correct. They should be fiscally responsible and at the same time listen to their constituients (sic)! WE CAN STOP THIS IF WE RISE UP TOGETHER AND MAKE OUR VOICE HEARD! KEEP CONTACTING THEM UNTIL THEY HEAR YOU! MAKE SURE THEY RECEIVE YOUR MESSAGE, FAX, E-MAIL”

The USDA email writer knew that this practice, for federal employees, is looked upon unfavorably and is probably illegal, so he or she warned “Remember, don’t make contacts using the office telephone or computer. Send your contacts from home or from another location other than the office, but send them! Obama sent a polite but forthright letter to the Department on the issue. To his credit, then USDA Secretary Mike Johanns (now a Republican candidate for governor in Nebraska) disavowed and condemned the surreptitious USDA lobbying effort. This secret USDA email was brought to the attention of Congress by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one of the organizations mentioned in the CR article on black farmers. This is a great example of why our sector needs watchdogs like EWG and why foundations, as the CR column suggested, should be supporting them.