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John Boyd: Nations Black farmers await justice

John Boyd | 9/15/2010, 5 p.m.

Our government has admitted that between 1981 and 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against Blacks who farmed or attempted to farm.

As U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., pointed out at a rally of Louisiana's Black farmers in August, the discrimination resulted in many people losing not only opportunities, but their very livelihoods.

In Louisiana alone, the USDA's actions may have derailed the lives of some 2,000 farmers.

The U.S. Department of Justice settled this case in February, with one detail remaining--how to pay for it. That detail has bedeviled Black farmers, their families and supporters ever since.

Even as our government officials acknowledge the discrimination, our Congress has been unable to move on the remedy. Approval for funding the black farmers' settlement remains--after seven failed attempts--stalled in the U.S. Senate.

But, as a nation committed to fairness, we can no longer accept pointless delays. When the Senate re-convenes this month, it must act to approve funding and close this sad and needlessly drawn-out chapter in American history.

There is a bipartisan cry for legislation. Leaders from both sides of the aisle, for example, have worked to identify offsets, meaning that delivering justice will result in no increase in the deficit, no additional expense to taxpayers.

Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner is on record supporting settlement funding as are Republican Senators Burr, Cochran, and Grassley.

Twice the House of Representatives has passed a measure to pay for this settlement, yet the legislation languishes in the Senate.

Sen. Landrieu has taken a position of leadership on this issue, meeting with Black farmers to discuss strategies and opportunities. We are hopeful Sen. David Vitter, R-La., will also be responsive and supportive.

Yet, while no senator has publicly opposed funding this settlement, it remains unfunded--stripped out of larger bills or burdened by "unanimous consent" requirements, which necessitate that 100 percent of senators vote "yes."

By no choice of their own, the hard working farmers of Louisiana have become the human face of the agony that follows, when political gridlock and back-room machinations stand in the way of America's impulse to do the right thing.

I recently traveled across the South to meet with farmers who, because of their inability to access basic federal loans, were left with farm properties but no operating support.

Some had farmed thousands of acres and contributed to our national breadbasket, but clear-cut discrimination prevented them from accessing federal programs. They lost their land and their ability to provide for their families.

One older man I visited never had the money to install clean running water or safe electricity, or to access quality medical care. Stymied by racism, he struggled through poor health while living in a shack that was collapsing around him. The scene I witnessed does not belong in America.

Let's resolve to end the waiting and anguish. When the Senate returns in September, it should act immediately to fund this settlement.

If the Black farmer funding is offered as a stand-alone measure for senators to vote on, we ask for cloture, which limits filibusters and allows for passage with 60 votes. If it is attached to a larger bill, we ask not to be stripped out as has happened before. The time for political games has ended. The time for justice is now.

John W. Boyd Jr., a working farmer, is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association (http://www.blackfarmers.org.) This editorial ran in the Shreveport Times on Sept. 5.