Note: ATLANTA....In October 2008, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report entitled "Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights". This highly critical report begins with"What the GAO Found - ASCR's difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints persist-ASCR has not achieved its goal of preventing backlogs of complaints."
Even in spite of the creation of an Assistant Secretary office as a special entity to help resolve civil rights complaints, many minority farmers still have not received the much needed attention and/or resolution of discrimination problems they face in their transactions with USDA. Below are comments by Jerry Pennick, the Federation's Director of the Land Assistance Fund, regarding the GAO report. Click here for a summary of the GAO report.
A Failure to Deliver:
Reflections on the Government Accounting Office’s (GAO) Report
on the USDA’s Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
By Jerry Pennick, Director
Land Assistance Fund
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
Founded in 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was meant to be an agency addressing research and the variety of plant seeds and patents from the various regions. President Abraham Lincoln referred to it as the “people’s department.” Ultimately, during the depression years of the 1930’s and 1940’s, USDA offered financial resources for family farmers who could not get that assistance from conventional sources. In fact, in 1946 the Farmer’s Home Administration (FmHA) was created to provide credit for family farmers and became known as the lending institute of last resort. The goal was to preserve family farmers and rural communities.
Since its inception, the USDA has been the poster child for racial discrimination. Compared to white farmers, black farmers have simply not been able to access the resources available at USDA. That history of discrimination culminated in a $1 billion dollar settlement on behalf of African American farmers in 1999. In fact, in 1982 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that the major reason African American farmers have lost land is because of the USDA itself and its appalling lack of services to the minority community. Due in large part to the discriminatory practices by the USDA, African American farmers ownership decreased over time. Black farmers went from 218,000 operators in 1910 to 36,370 in 2002. Black land ownership went from a high of 15 million acres in 1910 to 3,355,791 acres in 2002.
In 1997 the USDA issued a report entitled “Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture”. It was prepared by a Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT), which was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. Among other things, the report concluded that the USDA should consolidate its civil rights functions into one office.
A coalition of Community Based Organizations, that provide outreach to farmers of color, agreed that this would be a major step toward ending the documented discrimination at USDA. To further elevate the issue of civil rights at USDA, the coalition advocated for the establishment of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR) in the 2002 Farm Bill. The ASCR was approved by Congress and included in the Farm Bill.
The Federation and its partners viewed this as a tremendous win that would have a significant and positive impact on the USDA regarding farmers of color for years to come. We believed that the ASCR would be an advocate for the farmers when needed and would be able to hold the USDA accountable at all levels.
Unfortunately, three factors prevented that belief from becoming a reality. Firstly, the office was inadequately funded. Secondly, it has no enforcement powers and/or has failed to exercise what powers it might have. Lastly, the two individuals who have served in the position of Assistant Secretary For Civil Rights since its inception have not had the inclination or understanding of minority farmer issues to make the office a major player within the USDA. Therefore, the office has become marginalizes and a place of patronage.
This brings us to the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. In October 2008 the GAO issued a report entitled “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistance Secretary for Civil Rights”.
One finding in the report was that “difficulties in resolving complaints persist – ASCR has not achieved its goal of preventing future backlogs of discrimination complaints. At its basic level, the credibility of the USDA’s efforts to correct long-standing problems in resolving discrimination complaints has and continues to be undermined….”
One recommendation from the GAO calls for an ombudsman that will “ help ASCR be more responsive to the public through impartial and independent investigation of citizens complaints, including from people who believe their concerns have not been dealt with fairly and fully through normal channels”. The ASCR office responded that “more development of the concept would be needed… for an ombudsman to be minimally effective, its legitimacy and authority must be inherent, clean and unequivocal.”
Ironically, those of us who fought for the inclusion of the ASCR in the 2002 Farm Bill assumed that the office would have the authority and wherewithal to perform those ombudsman functions mentioned above. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, to the detriment of both the office and farmers of color
Because of its failure to deliver, the GAO also recommended that Congress consider “making the USDA’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights subject to a statutory performance agreement and establishing an agriculture civil rights oversight board.”
Given its history of non-performance, I can understand why the GAO made the above recommendation as well as a wide range of others that should be carefully reviewed by CBO’s and those who are interested in a fair and equitable USDA (go to http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-62 for the full report and recommendations).
Unfortunately, the GAO’s conclusions and recommendations appear to be based on the assumptions that the USDA will have to be forced to do the right thing. Given the 1999 $1 billion dollar Pigford v Schafer Class Action settlement against the USDA by Black farmers as well as other pending discrimination lawsuits against the department, forcing the USDA to do the right thing might be one of the few avenues available for justice to prevail.
I contend, however, that the tone and agenda at USDA are set by the Secretary of Agriculture. Only through a commitment to openness and equity from the top down can the embedded culture of discrimination be dismantled. That should be the litmus test for the next individual who will fill the Secretary of Agriculture position as well as that of USDA’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights – openness and equity. The ASCR should be given adequate funding and enforcement powers in addition to annual reporting and accountability to Congress. Only then will the intent as well as the letter of the law that created the Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights be enforced.