The lawsuits were filed about 10 years ago and claim USDA officials denied women and Latino farmers the same loans and other resources given to white (and presumably male) farmers. Farmers who qualify for participation in the settlement could get up to $50,000.
Details of the settlement and how to make a claim will be announced after the settlement is finalized.
Low-interest federal loans and subsidies are key to survival for many farmers. This February, the White House announced a $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers who claim the USDA discriminated against them for decades in loan programs.
Terms of the Settlement
The federal government has paid $1 billion to settle a related case with 16,000 black farmers in 1999. Many farmers weren't informed of the settlement due to communication problems. So they missed their opportunity to be compensated.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the worst cases of discrimination: Farmers lost their property after local USDA officials slowed down their loan applications so they didn't have enough money to get their crops planted. They have persisted through three presidential administrations.
Once approved, farmers can submit either a short-form application for up to $50,000, or a more detailed application for larger amounts. The amount of money available depends on how many farmers apply.
The president of the National Black Farmers Association, John W. Boyd, Jr., notes the money won't give land back to farmers who've lost it, but it will provide them some comfort.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and US Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. told the press they're giving their full attention to have the settlement approved by Congress.
Racial Discrimination Is Unlawful
Many state and federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnic origin and religion. The best-known anti-discrimination law is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age or national origin.
Federal, state and local governments are barred from illegally discrimination. In many cases, close attention must be paid to time deadlines and the procedures for filing suit. Most states have a state department of human rights, and an initial charge of discrimination is the first step, prior to filing a lawsuit.
The deadlines are very short, and are counted from the date the discriminatory act occurred. What constitutes discrimination, and when it occurred, aren't always what they seem. They can be very difficult to determine.
Other Groups Have Sued for Discrimination
Not only black farmers, but also Hispanic farmers, women, and Native Americans have sued the federal government for discrimination. Just last December, the US Department of Justice entered into a long-awaited settlement with Native Americans who claim the federal government mismanaged royalty payments for natural resources from tribal lands. Congress must approve the settlement before it's final.
US Representative Barbara Lee noted that the number of farms operated by black farmers has declined by nearly 50% over the past 20 years, in part because of the difficulty in obtaining federal loans.
The group's relationship with the USDA has been strained for decades. In 2002, black farmers took over a regional USDA office in Tennessee to protest the slow pace of processing loan application. The Secretary of Agriculture then appointed a Civil Rights Director to serve within the USDA. This position still exists today.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I am a black farmer. How can I claim the money owed to me?
- I think I've been discriminated against, but I'm not black. Do I have any recourse?