USDA Confronts Racial Bias

After years of political wrangling, U.S. Department of Agriculture settlements to minority farmers, who allege decades of discrimination at the hands of USDA loan officers, may finally go through. Last month, the USDA announced changes to settlement agreements with minority farmers, closing a longstanding fight over farm loans and racial discrimination.
The recent announcements end an ugly chapter in USDA history. The first class-action lawsuit, which alleged that between 1983 and 1997 the USDA engaged in an ongoing pattern of racial discrimination in the distribution of federal farm loans, was settled in 1999. Despite this settlement, accusations of bias have continued and many farmers claim that the USDA still allows racial and gender discrimination to color its loan practices. This bias has limited minority farmers’ access to farm loans. In order to help the agency move forward amidst charges of racial bias, the 2008 Farm Bill authorized over $1 billion to settle lawsuits brought by farmers who experienced racial and gender based discrimination.
In addition to settling lawsuits over farm loans, the USDA has attempted to rehabilitate its image by encouraging the participation of minority farmers in various farm programs and organizations. Earlier this month, the Farm Service Agency announced that federal funds were available to help socially disadvantaged farmers obtain farm loans. The agency hopes that expanding federal funding to these farmers will encourage more minorities to enter the agricultural profession, creating a more diverse farming economy. For the purposes of the program, socially disadvantaged farmers eligible for farm loans are African Americans, American Indians, Hispanics, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, and women.
Despite these changes, many farmers claim that they continue to face lending discrimination. According to some Louisiana farmers, banks have color-coded maps designating black regions and limiting those regions’s access to farm loans. One central Louisiana potato farmer stated, “If you’re from a black area, you flat out won’t get a loan.” Local USDA officials and politicians have promised to investigate these claims. Despite these promises, however, the USDA’s history of denying farm loans to minority farmers has clearly left a legacy of bitterness that will be difficult to over in the near future.