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Geisler: Old wine, new battles for Indian farmers

A wrecking ball is smashing through Indian country, putting Native farmers and ranchers out of business. It has pummeled them relentlessly and driven an entire generation of operators from their lands – it is a calamity affecting thousands of Native families.

Behind the wrecking ball are the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the BIA. Together, and for many years, they have discriminated against Indian farmers and ranchers seeking loans to stay in business. It’s a new way to do an old thing – run Indians off their land, hollow out reservations and flaunt once-solemn federal trust responsibilities.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination against people seeking small business loans. Yet for years the USDA has used different standards for Indian and non-Indian loan applicants and is now in the eye of a legal storm. In Wilkinson v. Schafer (Schafer is the current Secretary of Agriculture), the USDA is being sued by individual Indian farmers asked to assign their trust property income as a precondition for getting or renewing loans. In a second case, Keepseagle v. Schafer, USDA is charged with denying or delaying farm loans and emergency assistance, forcing many into foreclosure. The latter is a class action suit patterned after an earlier class action by black farmers against the USDA.

On June 3 of this year, the wrecking ball seemed to stop. After years of delay, a senior USDA judge ruled in favor of the Wilkinson family in Wilkinson v. Schafer and awarded substantial damages on June 20. But the rulings left a vast number of victims in the class action suit out of the settlement. USDA is objecting strenuously to the former ruling and stonewalling on the latter. Indian farmland continues to transfer to non-Indian farmers who have little difficulty in getting USDA loan assistance.

What is deplorable about this state of affairs is the duration of USDA discrimination and its incalculable damage. A year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights established that USDA discriminated against its employees and minority clients. In 1976 Congress earmarked loan assistance for minority farmers in the Farm Bill and, in 1985, extended USDA’s Direct Loan Assistance Program to minority farmers in the Farm Bill Supplement. This came two years after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights documented widespread loan prejudice in the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) and two years after President Reagan dismantled USDA’s Office of Civil Rights.

In 1990, the House Governmental Operations Committee issued a report stating that “ironically, FmHA has been a catalyst in the decline of minority farming.” FmHA was replaced by USDA’s Farm Services Agency in 1995, the director of which publicly deplored discrimination in 1996. A USDA team then sponsored 12 listening sessions nationwide, after which it reported that USDA discrimination continued as it had in the past. Congress held more hearings. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman created a Civil Rights Action Team to investigate the charges. Blacks responded; it was the largest class action suit in American history. In the end, USDA denied payment to nearly 90 percent of those plaintiffs.

The wrecking ball is now rolling again. The 2002 Farm Bill established an Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at USDA to expedite the mounting discrimination claims. The claims increased rather than decreased and the new secretary resigned abruptly in 2006. Approaching USDA headquarters for information on plans to reduce discrimination, Government Accounting Office officials were barred from entry in March of 2008. The GAO’s Lisa Shames summarized USDA’s defiant civil rights behaviors towards minority farmers in a GAO report on May 14.

How long can USDA stonewall and get away with it? After all, as Gladstone said, justice delayed is justice denied. Last week, another of the Indian farmers seeking legal relief through the Wilkinson suit, Hidatsa Jarret Johnson, passed away on his Fort Berthold farm in North Dakota. That brings the number of those who have died before settling with USDA to nearly half. Mortality is diminishing the Keepseagle plaintiffs as well. Is this USDA’s perverse logic: delay long enough and the discrimination victims will pass out of the picture? Swing the wrecking ball, stonewall yet again, and never mind Congress, the GAO, legal rulings, and its own internal Civil Rights Division warnings.

This doesn’t have to be the endgame. Jarret Johnson’s family and others may still find justice if the Wilkinson damages are extended to nearly 200 similarly victimized families. Then there are the many plaintiffs in the Keepseagle class action suit against USDA. They deserve no less. The day of judgment is on the horizon. Black farmers call USDA “the last plantation.” The wrecking ball, we might recall, spared neither the plantations nor the arrogance of institutionalized discrimination.

Charles Geisler is professor of development sociology at Cornell University.