African Americans and the land: The Senate vote for the Black farmers’ settlement
Taking Black people off the land—when they have been able to buy and occupy it—whether by starving Black owners of funds, seeds and farm equipment; by outright KKK-type murder and intimidation, or through other nefarious means, has been as regular in America as night following day.
This has especially been the case in the agricultural sector, where making a living was never easy even for the hardworking and resilient.
In spite of this relentless hostility and racism, Black farmers and other land-owners have persisted, if not prevailed. Currently, the Black farmers in America are down to owning less than one million acres, from a high of 5.8 million acres. And although there are millions of Black home-owners, the majority of the African American population lives in apartments, flats and rental rooms, as they do in California. The two-century-old process of steadily reducing and undermining Black land ownership is clearly winning and showing no signs of being abated.
In fact, according to the most recent statistics, during this continuing recessionary mortgage crisis, the population hit the hardest by foreclosures, eviction and home ownership loss are African American.
For the last 20 or so years, more Blacks had gotten into home ownership than the previous century, and now much of that gain is gone. Dilapidated, deteriorating former homes now symbolize the hundreds of thousands of Black folk that are abruptly homeless or close to it.
What is the problem with Black folks owning land and their own homes? Why, of course, the more land/home ownership, the more independence and self-interested thought/action is taken by Black folk.
Lack of land means more dependency, more need for governmental and charitable assistance, and more consumer-oriented activity by the Black population. This equation is not rocket science, it is simply a recognition of regular American domestic practice.
So, yes, there has been in this country for a very long time a persistent, widespread reluctance by Whites inside and outside government to help more Black folks acquire and keep landed property.
Thus, the original 1999 Timothy Pigford lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for an unending pattern of discrimination in providing federal resources to Blacks that were available to White farmers–as if through White entitlements—while outright refusing, substantially delaying or seriously reducing the necessary amounts to insignificant fractions of assistance to Black farmers.
That suit eventually prevailed, and Black farmers were supposed to be compensated, at least in part, for the consequences of that long-term pattern of discrimination.
But, theory and practice, although 16,000 of those original plaintiffs and applicants eventually got some compensation—the government said it has already paid out over $1 billion dollars—well over one-half of the Black farmers never got any payment or relief through Pigford, because the same ones in the government who were sued, were the ones to implement the court decision, and they just found ways to circumvent what the court had ordered.
A second suit was filed to repair the damage caused by the faulty implementation of the Pigford case, now commonly referred to as Pigford II. It also was successful in court. The government was ordered to pay the Black farmers.
When current President Barack Obama was a U.S. Senator from Illinois, he authored legislation to get the Black farmers paid. As president, he strongly encouraged Congress to pass the necessary appropriations bill to pay the Black farmers the $1.15 billion they won in the settlement suit. The U.S. House passed a version of the needed legislation in the summer of 2010, but the Senate version had been repeatedly blocked by Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats.
Last week, in the final phase of its lame duck session, the U.S. Senate finally took up and passed the needed appropriations bill using a parliamentary trick to avoid prolonged debate and more delay. On November 30, the House re-passed the Senate version, sending the legislation to the president for signature.
So, the Black farmers finally prevailed, getting the federal funding available for each to receive at least $50,000 for the effects of USDA discriminatory treatment.
Even though this is a very, very significant accomplishment through countless negotiations, political horse trading and voting across party lines, the money is still not automatic for the farmers. Each must now qualify to receive the funds from the same body that lost the latest suit. We’ll have to wait to find out whether the president’s advocacy for treating the farmers fairly finally gets through the USDA bureaucracy.
But, notwithstanding any of that, this is a great reparations victory. Many participants in America’s Reparations Movement supported and/or joined the suit, or did community mobilizations, petitions, radio shows, panel discussions and wrote newspaper articles backing the struggle of the Black farmers, including (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), Claud Anderson’s Harvest Institute, Southern California’s Reparations United Front (RUF), retiring Congresswoman Diane Watson, and current Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee, etc.
President Obama’s statement regarding the issue is in reparations language: “My hope is that the farmers and their families who were denied access to USDA loans and programs will be made whole and will have the chance to rebuild their lives and their businesses.”
Even some Republican opponents of the legislation in the House of Representatives called it reparations, such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who referred to it in the House as “modern-day reparations” for African Americans.
Well, we’ll take that, and we deserve even more.
During this time of sparse triumphs for the Black community, although it is not a perfect win, it has to be recognized and lauded as a great step forward. It needs to also be noted that without President Obama’s backing, this positive ending would not have occurred, as his administration brokered the necessary deals this past year to make this thing happen. And some Black folks say the POTUS takes care of no Black folks’ business. I say they need to read more and pay attention to more than porn and political pandering. Lawd have mercy.
Professor David L. Horne, is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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