$400 million and a mule?

Black farmers say the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit won't end racism at the Department of Agriculture.

Published March 8, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Early this week federal Judge Paul Friedman will decide whether to approve what may turn out to be the biggest class-action settlement in history, to compensate black farmers for decades of discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whatever Friedman decides, it was clear from the tears and anguish at last week's settlement hearing that the cash award will never compensate the nation's surviving black farmers for their years of suffering, bankruptcies and humiliation.

Last Tuesday in Courtroom 20, a walnut-paneled, high-ceilinged room in the same federal courthouse where an army of TV crews hung out all summer waiting for glimpses of Monica Lewinsky, Friedman presided over a hearing on objections to the settlement, which would award participating farmers about $50,000 each and forgive their USDA loans. The courtroom is usually saved for ceremonial occasions, and the gilded portraits of some 40 dead judges, all but two of them white, stare down from the walls. But on Tuesday it might as well have been a church. Some 400 farmers -- many in tattered coats and bib overalls who had driven days to testify on decades of harsh hate and discrimination -- had overflowed the benches and, with Friedman's permission, stood along the walls and aisles. Occasionally they'd punctuate the proceedings with an "amen" or a "that's right" or a "tell it," in the cadences of a riled-up Sunday morning congregation gathered to hear the Lord's word.

The Department of Agriculture's history of racism was not disputed. In 1997, its own investigators belatedly discovered "years of bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness, rudeness, and indifference" to black farmers. Their report used virtually the same language found in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report in 1965 -- and a dusty box full of reports in between. But while the $400 million settlement worked out in January between lawyers for the farmers and the government may seem large -- it could well climb to $1 billion, lawyers in the case now say -- it would award thousands of farmers only about $50,000 each. That's a pittance, according to the speakers, who described decades of humiliation and bankruptcies at the hands of the largely all-white USDA county councils, the good ol' boys who processed loan applications and decided who got money for seeds, tractors and land.

Charlie Harris stood against a cold marble wall outside Friedman's courtroom last Tuesday morning. A poor black peanut farmer from Pike County, Ala., Harris, 42, remembered how it worked the first time he walked into the local USDA office in rural Alabama and asked for a loan. The council members were sitting around their clubhouse enjoying themselves.

"An ol' boy there took my application and said, 'You got this wrong, and you got that wrong,'" Harris said in his soft Alabama lilt. "They was scratching out all my answers with a red pen."

He still manages to sound surprised at how blatant it was.

"Most of 'em were openly joking," Harris said of the loan officer and his pink-faced, tobacco-chewing cronies, "saying, 'You got to do this, you got to do that.'" The council members told him to come back later, he said. But as he was leaving a white farmer walked in and got a slap on the back and an invitation to the back room for a few minutes of chewing the fat. A little while later the farmer emerged smiling, loan approval in hand.

This was 1979, Harris recalled, and, according to the parade of black farmers in the federal courtroom Tuesday, nothing had changed in the 20 years since. Despite volumes of reports and congressional hearings over the years, black farmers were still being nudged into bankruptcy by a recalcitrant, white-dominated, anachronistic bureaucracy that requires nothing less than a top-to-bottom demolition.

"There's nothing about systematic change in this agreement," a speaker in a tattered green jacket complained to U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman. "We need a complete house-cleaning at the USDA."

Friedman listened with obvious sympathy to the 17 speakers who walked to the lectern and poured out their tales of woe and protest during nearly eight hours of testimony. Like Harris, most of them said they didn't even try to get a loan from the USDA local councils anymore. Harris eventually got his first loan from the "ol' boys," he said, but it came too late for most of his planting -- on purpose, he believes. In time he was forced to get loans from commercial banks at high interest rates, which led to bankruptcy. His house, land and equipment were auctioned off -- to friends and relatives of the council members who'd forced him into a hole in the first place, he said. Eventually he got back on his feet, with the help of an out-of-state bank set up to aid poor farmers with low-cost loans. Last year he was Pike County "farmer of the year."

"These guys who've survived all this are really rocket scientists," marveled Lorette Picciano, a Washington official with the Rural Coalition, which advocates on behalf of minority farmers. The problem is that so few of them are left. While small farmers of all races have been run off the land, crushed by a triple whammy of bad weather, failed loan gambles and the relentless march of corporate agribusiness, blacks have edged toward complete extinction, dropping from 14 percent of the nation's farmers in the 1920s to less than 1 percent today. From a high-water mark of nearly a million black farmers in 1920, perhaps only 20,000 are tilling the soil today.

"Most of them will be gone by the end of the year," predicts Tim Pigford, lead plaintiff in the original class-action suit against the Agriculture Department. "The rest will be gone soon after 2000."

It's a startling thought. Typesetters are gone, too, and so are switchboard operators, but no one ran them out of business on purpose because of their skin color. Yet the Department of Agriculture, which is supposed to represent and protect farmers, has as much as admitted in its consent decree that it not only failed to help black farmers, it aided in their destruction.

Tim Pigford, 47, began fighting back in 1984, when he ran into the usual hurdles for blacks at the USDA loan office near Wilmington, N.C. "They treated me like pure dirt," he said. One official crumpled up his loan application and, with a big grin, tossed it in a wastebasket. At USDA headquarters, according to several accounts, one white manager kept a hanging noose in his drawer, which he took out and toyed with in front of his black subordinate.

"People have died from the strain and aggravation of this issue," said Pigford, who's been out of work for two years. Long ago he lost his farm and house. He suffers from heart pains. His wife has ulcers. His son had a nervous breakdown at 18 after years of taunting from schoolmates.

"For a year and 12 days before we lost the house, we lived with no lights, no telephone, no central heating or air," Pigford said wearily. "There's been days I didn't know where the next meal was coming from." He now rents the same house he once owned.

In 1984 Pigford testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee looking into racial practices at the USDA, which had come to be called "the last plantation." Dan Glickman, then a Kansas congressman, now secretary of agriculture, was on the committee, which heard the same litany of woes written up 20 years earlier. A stack of other reports written over the years, right through 1997, confirmed the charges. Nothing happened until the black farmers' suit came to fruition in January. For years Congress didn't even know that Ronald Reagan's Agriculture Department had effectively abolished its civil rights enforcement office, scattering its functions among a warren of offices and departments. It would remain that way until President Clinton took office and appointed the first black man to run the department, Mike Espy.

But not much changed under Espy, either, Pigford and other critics said. There were rounds of reorganizations. Key white officials stayed on. Blacks were appointed, both in Washington and the county councils, but several critics said they were as bad or worse than the whites they replaced. An indictment charging Espy with accepting gifts and favors from agribusiness corporations, for which he was recently acquitted, sapped his attention until he was forced to resign.

"This is the biggest coverup -- this makes Monica Lewinsky look like child's play," Pigford exclaimed. "Dan Glickman -- every secretary of agriculture should've been fired, Mike Espy included. Mike Espy has apologized to me, since he has suffered some inconvenience at the hand of the government himself."

Pigford and other black farmers met with Clinton after their protest outside the White House in December 1996.

"He admitted there was a problem, that he hadn't done everything he was supposed to do," Pigford recalled. "He said he was amazed at the career employees here in Washington, not only at USDA."

"Clinton was blaming things on the Reagan administration," Pigford said. "I finally said, 'Mr. President, it may be true that Ronald Reagan started all this, but what have you done since you've been here?' He just dropped his head and said, 'You're right.'"

Ironically, the USDA's biggest accomplishment seems to have been finally facing up to its own execrable record of prejudice -- "bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness, rudeness, and indifference," in the words of its own report. "Failure to change," it said, "will mean that minority farmers continue toward extinction."

But the deal worked out with the government by Alexander Pires and the other lawyers representing black farmers contains no guarantee of change, only the appointment of a USDA "monitor" to make sure the settlement's terms are carried out. (The plaintiffs can also veto USDA's choice for the job.) The consent decree includes a provision for the USDA to make sure its terms are carried out, but essentially the case is about money -- money, in many cases, that will arrive too late for farmers who long ago lost their land, their health and their belief in America's promise and basic fairness.

Charlie Harris called the $50,000-per-farmer settlement offer a "slap in the face," a pittance for the forced bankruptcies and humiliations he and other black farmers have suffered for decades. The settlement would also erase their debts to the USDA, but on average, farmers involved in the case owe the government $75,000 to $100,000.

"It's not enough here for a lifetime of losses, a lifetime of pain and suffering," John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told reporters during a break in the hearing. Some farmers would like to see some USDA officials go to jail as part of the settlement. Or at least have Judge Friedman enforce a complete house cleaning in the USDA county councils, which one rural expert likened to outposts of the Ku Klux Klan.

Friedman listened to the parade of speakers who implored him to change the system. But he held no mandate or authority to move into the provinces of Congress or state legislators, he said.

"Ultimately, I must either approve it as fair, adequate and reasonable, or disapprove it," Friedman said.

The consent decree, as it now stands, forces the farmers to either sign onto the government's one-time offer of $50,000 or risk all in an individual suit. Most farmers didn't keep records complete enough to prove discrimination in such a suit, even if they had the time and money to fight the government for years more.

"It is a dilemma," acknowledged Pigford, whose fight with USDA was settled in his favor two years ago, although he's yet to see "one damn dime" -- a penalty for "stirring up trouble," he thinks. He drove home to North Carolina empty-handed.

Some 12,000 black farmers have requested the forms needed to ratify the settlement, a strong indication that the overwhelming majority will sign on, says Phillip Frass, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. Attorneys have fanned out to farm country to explain the deal.

Frass is likewise confident that Judge Friedman will approve it.

"The judge has indicated how strongly he feels about the case. I don't think he's going to let it unravel," Frass said, adding that some of the civil rights organizations who blasted the settlement in court Tuesday "have been sending out feelers that they want to make peace."

Frass and his fellow attorneys have battled their way to exhaustion, an outcome that evokes the bittersweet ending to "A Civil Action," in which a lawyer loses everything -- house, car, firm -- in a protracted suit against polluters on behalf of sick children in Woburn, Mass.

"We're all going broke on this," said Frass. "We have spent a humongous number of hours on this and, frankly, out-of-pocket expenses" of more than $3 million. None of their fee will come out of the settlement, which could rise to $1 billion in the end, making it the largest true class-action victory on record. (The tobacco verdict was won by state attorneys general.) The Justice Department will pay Frass and his colleagues about $1 million plus expenses.

Judge Friedman paid the petitioners deep respect before adjourning court Tuesday evening -- small pay for their years of pain and tears. But his audience, packed shoulder to shoulder in the courtroom, responded warmly.

"This is not just a lawsuit, it's not just about legal issues, but about your presence in the courtroom," the judge said quietly. "It is you who have shown courage, standing up for what's right, for justice and democracy."

"Amen ... that's right ... he's tellin' it," came the murmurs from the crowd.

The judge turned to the tables full of pinstripe-suited government lawyers below and to his right. They seemed transfixed; the courtroom was solemnly quiet.

"I ask you," he said to the government lawyers, "to take the emotion in this room back to your secretaries [of the Agriculture and Justice departments]. The level of mistrust," he said in an understatement, "is still high."

His decision on the consent decree is expected within the week.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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