Obama to sign bill awarding payments to black farmers: justice or 'fraud'?
President Obama signs a law Wednesday aimed at rectifying USDA actions that undercut black farmers. Some conservatives call it 'modern-day reparations' that reward political friends.
President Obama intends to sign a $1.15 billion settlement for black farmers on Wednesday, bringing to a close what he has called "a painful chapter in American history" – discrimination that led to blacks losing their grip on the land.Skip to next paragraph
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Years in the making, the so-called Pigford II settlement has stirred much debate about government responsibility to repay blacks for unfair US Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan policies and about whether such settlements amount to backdoor reparations for general historic discrimination.
The legislation opens the way for about 80,000 blacks to settle claims expected to average $50,000. Many conservatives see it as an outright raid on the US Treasury that could put taxpayers on the hook for more direct payments to Democratic special-interest groups in the farm sector, namely women and Hispanics who are preparing separate lawsuits. (White farmers, too, are planning to sue the USDA over its loan policies.)
"Any time you're trying to go back and compensate people based on past discrimination, figuring out who should be compensated and how much is always tricky, so the devil's in the details," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta.
The Pigford II legislation is the second phase of a lawsuit filed by North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, who joined with 400 black farmers to complain about USDA loan policies between 1983 and 1987. In 2006, then-Senator Obama sponsored a version of the current bill, opening up a second settlement process to black farmers and farm families whose claims were caught up in bureaucracy and congressional wrangling over funding.
“Black farmers have waited many years for this day – the end of denied justice, the dawn of a new era of equality," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, in a statement on Wednesday.
But critics cite several concerns with the soon-to-be-law. One is that about 33,000 black farms were in existence at the time of Pigford's original filing, yet 80,000 claimants have filed for settlement. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, for one, recently called Pigford II "a complete fraud."
"This is what happens when government rings the dinner bell, and it's an indication of just how loose the rules are for vetting past injustices, real or not," Investors Business Daily wrote Tuesday in an editorial.