Manufacturing controversy around discrimination settlements

President Obama recently approved funding for two major discrimination settlements involving black farmers and Native Americans.  While the story received a significant amount of media coverage in December, some conservatives continue to hammer the black farmers settlement saying it is a “scandal” and that it amounts to “slavery reparations.”  It looks like the controversy will drag on as right-wing politicians continue to call for an investigation.  Here is an article I wrote for Street Speech newspaper about the settlements:

After prolonged legal battles, thousands of black farmers and Native Americans will finally get a measure of justice.  Following months of delays, the Senate and House approved and President Obama signed the Claims Settlement Act of 2010, which provides funding for two major settlements dealing with overt and institutional discrimination against black farmers and Native Americans.

The Pigford settlement provides $1.2 billion to black farmers who endured discrimination by local United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices when applying for loans and other assistance and in receiving disaster payments during the 1980s and 1990s.  There are two parts to the settlement, and the earlier phase resulted in compensation for 16,000 farmers. However, more than 60,000 potential claimants filed late due to the lack of timely and effective notice, and the second phase of the Pigford settlement allows for consideration of these claims.

The Cobell settlement gives $3.4 billion to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans in response to federal government mismanagement of trust accounts related to land and other natural resources.  Specifically, $1.5 billion of the settlement will be distributed to individual account holders, $1.9 billion for the purpose of consolidating land holdings.  Additionally, the settlement creates a $60 million scholarship fund for Native American youth.

While the push to authorize funding for the historic settlements has received praise, some criticisms have been raised about the limitations. According to the report titled “Obstruction of Justice” by the Environmental Working Group, in the first phase of the Pigford settlement the USDA did not allow access to information and made it difficult for black farmers to meet the burden of proof required for a claim to be approved.

Regarding the Cobell case, the settlement amount is far less than the $40 billion originally claimed by the plaintiffs for over 100 years of federal mismanagement.  Also, Angelique Eaglewoman and Tim Giago point out that the U.S. government does not really acknowledge the extent of its wrongdoing.

On the other hand, a number of conservative commentators and politicians have criticized the Pigford settlement saying that it is a form of reparations for slavery and an example of massive fraud.

Most notably, representative Steve King (Republican – Iowa) said “We’ve got to stand up at some point and say, ‘We are not gonna pay slavery reparations in the United States Congress.’ That war’s been fought. That was over a century ago. That debt was paid for in blood and it was paid for in the blood of a lot of Yankees, especially. And there’s no reparations for the blood that paid for the sin of slavery. No one’s filing that claim.” This connection to slavery reparations is made despite the fact that the settlement is a direct response to discrimination that took place between 1981 and 1997.

Representative King is joined by Representative Michelle Bachmann (Republican – Minnesota) and conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart among others in calling the settlement a fraud.  One of the main arguments used to support these fraud allegations is that there could be as many as 80,000 claimants when the Census Bureau indicates that there were 32,000 black operated farms.

Heather Gray and Ralph Paige from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives respond comprehensively to this discrepancy. They state discrimination went beyond loans and assistance and extended into the counting of minority farmers, resulting in undercounting.  Also, they suggest that some claimants may be family members of black farmers who worked on farms but were not officially counted.

In addition, the second phase of Pigford considers those who attempted to farm but could not as a result of discrimination. Gray and Paige note that Civil Rights Division of the USDA was eliminated by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and was not re-established until 1996, which means there is a lack of documentation and information about these examples of discrimination and the people who made the claims. They also point out that claimants will have to go through a vetting process and that not all 80,000 will receive compensation.

While the settlements for black farmers and Native Americans may be limited and do not even begin to compensate for full extent of discrimination, dispossession and marginalization, at the very least they establish an important precedent for other marginalized groups to pursue restitution.

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One thought on “Manufacturing controversy around discrimination settlements

  1. Great piece. I hadn’t heard about this at all. Your point showing the absurdity of calling it “slavery reparations” is well done. I like how Steve King’s first argument is that the war “was over a century ago” suggesting (though I’m sure unintentionally) that he would have supported reparations 25, 50, or 75 years ago…?

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