Aggressive legal tactics by the Bush administration have deliberately undermined a landmark 1997 civil rights settlement with African American farmers, turning the claims process into another chapter in a long history of discriminatory treatment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A report released June 20 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Black Farmers Association finds that almost nine out of 10 Black farmers have been denied compensation for discrimination over USDA crop loans, even though U.S. District Court for the District Columbia – in approving the settlement – had described compensation payment as “automatic.” Instead the USDA, under the leadership of President Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, has withheld three-quarters of the $2.3 billion agreed to in the settlement.

“The USDA aggressively fought Black farmers,” said EWG’s Ariane Callendar, a lead author of the report. The investigation found that USDA paid $12 million dollars to U.S. Department of Justice lawyers for 56,000 hours spent contesting the claims of 129 Black farmers.

“That means the Department of Justice spent on average 460 hours attacking each farmer,” says Callendar. And these figures, she says, represent only a small portion of the time and energy expended to avoid paying the aggrieved farmers. USDA managed to deny payment to 82,000 of the 94,000 African American farmers who sought restitution.

African American farmers brought suit against USDA in 1997 in a historic civil rights case known as Pigford v. Glickman (now titled Pigford v. Veneman), claiming that USDA systematically discriminated against African Americans by denying them crop loans readily made available to comparable white farmers.

The Reagan administration eliminated the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights in 1982, leaving African-American farmers no avenue for appealing loan denials they believed to be discriminatory.

In 1996, the Clinton administration re-established USDA’s office of Civil Rights, and in 1997 made an admission of discrimination in its own study of USDA operations. Finalized under Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, the settlement was based on USDA’s 1997 civil rights study, coupled with the absence of any recourse for Black farmers to discriminatory practices from 1982 to 1996.

Over the past 20 years, the number of farms operated by African Americans has plummeted from 54,367 in 1982 to 29,090 in 2002 (the suit included 94,000 farmers because many farms have more than one farmer). This dramatic decline, the report concludes, has been due in part to lack of equal access to USDA loans.

The report details “the willful obstruction of justice by USDA” and demands immediate action by Congress. “Only Congress can make whole the 82,000 farmers who were denied restitution arbitrarily, after USDA had agreed, in settling the case, that their discrimination claims were valid.”

– Reprinted with permission from