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"USDA's Discrimination Against African-American Farmers,"

by Randi Roth January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1920, there were approximately 925,000 African-American farms in the United States. Now, fewer than 18,000 are left. The general problem addressed by the research project undertaken by the Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG), with PRRAC support, concerns the role that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has played in the dramatic decline in African-American farming in America.

There were many areas in which research and advocacy were needed to begin redressing discrimination at USDA. Our research focused on a very narrow piece of necessary research: we aimed to produce a comprehensive handbook that USDA civil rights investigators could use as they tried to respond to African-American farmers’ discrimination complaints. Our goal was to write something in very plain language, which an investigator could use to walk through the analysis of a civil rights complaint, step by step. We believed that were such a resource available to USDA investigators, they would be able to do a better job of fairly and accurately analyzing farmers’ complaints.

Our methodology had two components. The first was field research. It involved interviewing the field staff of organizations that provide advocacy services to African-American farmers. We met with these “farm advocates” and with some individual farmers and asked them to identify the major ways in which they saw USDA engaging in discriminatory behavior in its loan programs. We analyzed the results of these interviews and came up with a list of the farmers’ most common complaints.

The second component involved historical and legal research. We studied articles, books and government reports that shed light on the history of USDA’s discrimination against African-American farmers, and we analyzed the law that governs discrimination in USDA credit programs (primarily the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the regulations governing the USDA credit programs). We learned that many of African-American farmers’ problems with discrimination by USDA can be grouped into the following categories: (1) inability to get basic technical assistance from USDA; (2) problems in getting a loan (including USDA discouraging written applications for credit; USDA making decisions about applications for credit late, or not at all; USDA under-funding loan requests; USDA giving high interest rates when they could and should have given lower interest rates; and USDA denying loans); (3)  USDA failing to release its security interest in the farmers’ income stream (when farmers pledge their crops, for example, to USDA as security for a loan, the farmer cannot use any income from those crops without USDA’s permission); (4) problems in loan servicing (USDA’s mechanism for adjusting payment obligations); (5) problems regarding administrative appeals; and, (6) problems regarding USDA’s calculation of the farmer’s cash flow (ability to repay debt).

We also learned that USDA had a long history of discriminatory treatment of African-American farmers. Finally, we learned that much of what the farmers complained about was not only unfair, it was also illegal.

We took the results of the research and compiled a notebook for USDA investigators. The sections included:
• Introduction: How to Use This Manual
• History of Discrimination in USDA Programs
• Legal Standards of Proof for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act
• Standard Operating Procedure—The Steps in an Investigation (including a four-color chart illustrating the steps)
• The Law That Governs FSA Credit Programs
• Historical and Current Details About Program Rights
• Analyzing Appeal Rights
• When to Use Statistical Comparisons
• Calculating Damages
• Worksheets on Program Rights

The most important strength of the research document we produced is that all of the basic information somebody would need to understand and analyze a farmer’s discrimination claim is now assembled in one place in plain language format. Another strength of the research is that USDA chose to adopt the handbook as an official document of the department, which gives the book enhanced credibility. (USDA asked two FLAG attorneys to use the handbook as the official manual in a training session for USDA’s contract civil rights investigators. The manual was photocopied and handed out by USDA at a Washington, DC, training session in December 1997.)

There are two important limitations on the usefulness of the research. The first is that the legal research — like all legal research — may have become out of date the day after it was published. Although it is very useful for getting a general picture of the law, one should not rely on any specific point in the legal analysis without first doing follow-up research to see whether that aspect of the law has changed since our publication date.

The second limitation is that the handbook does not contain enough worksheets. Although the most common problems African-American farmers encounter in USDA credit programs are covered in the worksheets, resources did not allow us to cover some additional significant problems (such as problems with farmers’ rights to buy or lease land which is in USDA’s “inventory” of farms that they’ve acquired through foreclosure and other means, problems with USDA’s enforcement of the conservation rules that farmers are supposed to meet to maintain loan eligibility, problems with some less common but important aspects of loan servicing, and others).

Our research can have many advocacy uses. It will also be extremely useful for farm advocates and lawyers who are trying to help farmers understand and/or enforce their rights. Although the handbook is quite lengthy, it is also extremely useful for individual farmers who think they may have been discriminated against by USDA and who have sufficient time and motivation to do extensive research to try to understand their rights.

Randi Roth is Executive Director of the Farmers Legal Action Group (46 E. 4th St, #1301, St. Paul, MN 55101, 651/223-5400. rroth@flaginc.org
 

Notes:

[USDA has released the entire handbook to PRRAC through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, free of charge. Others can try to obtain the handbook through a similar FOIA request. Write to: USDA FOIA Officer, USDA - Office of Communications, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 536A, Wash., DC 20250-1300. Refer to the SOP Manual used at the USDA’s Dec. 10, 1997, training session. If you encounter difficulty, contact Randi Roth for advice. Alternatively, FLAG can furnish at cost ($82) a version of the 188-page (+ tabs, charts, appendices)manual, with tabbed color charts and labeled dividers that make the document more user-friendly than what USDA will provide.]

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