By Jarrell Dillard
A group of senators is demanding an accounting from the Agriculture Department on how much progress it’s made in addressing historic discrimination against Black farmers.
Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia along with independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont said an agency within the department with the task of dealing with decades of bias in farm programs “repeatedly failed to protect the rights of Black farmers and staff.”
“Farmers of color have experienced discrimination, including land and wealth loss, been denied access to federal relief and support programs, and had their civil-rights claims ignored,” the senators wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.
Vilsack announced last year he was setting up a commission to examine how his department may contribute to or perpetuate racial inequality in farming. The senators urged him to address the current delay in processing discrimination complaints and asked him to to create an independent oversight board to supervise the USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights handling of the complaints.
In 2019, that office, known as OASCR, averaged 799 days to process program complaints compared to the 180 day standard, according to a 2021 report by the USDA Office of Inspector General. The audit also found that 9 of 28 complaint determinations and closures were not adequately supported and processed. A set of recommendations were issued to address the issue.
The senators asked that the USDA produce information by June 14 on its action to address racial discrimination including, what recommendations from the inspector general have been implemented and the average processing time for complaints in 2021.
The senators urged Vilsack to ensure that OASCR is in compliance with civil rights laws, including actions that could alleviate the backlog of appeals and help assist farmers in navigating the complaints process. They also urged the USDA comply with regulations that prohibit farm foreclosures while discrimination complaint are pending before USDA.
The position of the top civil rights officer at the Agriculture Department has been vacant for more than four years, according to the senators. President Joe Biden nominated Margo Schlanger, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, to the job last year.
The senators said while Schlanger is awaiting confirmation by the Senate, the USDA still can “take immediate action to address the concerns raised by Black farmers and work to put the USDA on a more equitable path moving forward, and we ask you to do so without delay.”
Black farm ownership plunged over the past century amid a record of discrimination by USDA administrators in denying or slow-walking loans and aid to minority farmers and sometimes-violent intimidation by White supremacists seeking to drive African-Americans from the land as they sought voting and other civil rights.
A century ago, there were almost 1 million Black farmers in America, representing 14% of U.S. farmers. By 2017, the last agricultural census, the number had dwindled to about 45,500–1.3% of the total number of producers. Black-operated farms accounted for only 4.7 million acres of farmland, 0.5% of the total.
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