The vanishing black farmer

Discrimination settlement illumines mounting difficulties

When Abraham Carpenter scans this fertile black Delta soil, he sees 30 years of hard work.

Peeking out from beneath his baseball cap in the sultry summer heat, his comments are as brief as his breaks for lunch or a quick sip of ice water. "Farming is our way of life," he says simply.

Like many African-American farmers in the South, where the land is as much a part of heritage as a family name, he says his heart is tied to these rows of tomatoes, corn, and peas.

And like many African-American farmers in the South, he says his wallet is increasingly tied to the US government.

Along with 10,000 current and former farmers, Mr. Carpenter is part of a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture, alleging that the agency discriminated against blacks.

He's spent $300,000 in legal fees fighting the government. And although the government last month agreed to pay more than $635 million, the money is still tied up in appeals and legal wrangling.

Throughout the tobacco rows and cotton fields of the South, the lawsuit has split communities, and the delays in payment have led to protests. But beyond that, the upheaval has focused greater attention on the future of farmers like Carpenter, who are struggling to maintain a stake in the land that their ancestors fought for during the days of Jim Crow.

Perhaps nowhere is this battle more heated than in the flat, impoverished region of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, where farming is the staple of the local economy, and race relations remain tense more than 30 years after the civil rights movement.

Forces of change

Certainly, in south Arkansas, the plight of the African-American farmers extends beyond the class-action lawsuit. Farming experts say blacks have fallen victim to the same economic forces that have affected all small farmers - basically, the rise of corporate agriculture.

But many black farmers say they've also faced challenges that white farmers haven't. In their lawsuit, they claim that the USDA discriminated in dispensing loans and unfairly foreclosed on farms owned by African-Americans. Now, they've had to pay to support the lawsuit.

"We won't give it up, but it is becoming harder and harder to fight the government," Carpenter says.

Historically, the decline of the black farmer has been precipitous. In 1920, there were 1 million African-American farmers. By 1999, the number was down to some 18,000.

When times have turned tough, African-American farmers often have not shared their financial problems with other farmers or sought help.

"The black farmer was proud," says Jeannie Whayne, author of "A New Plantation South." "What they didn't realize was that the very pride they showed for the land could be snatched away from them."

Money matters

Carpenter worries about losing his business. For years, his family has sold vegetables "to everyone in south Arkansas at least once" from their two produce stores in Pine Bluff and Little Rock, he says.

The family name is well-known around these parts.

But Carpenter doesn't know if he's going to turn a profit this year, and he's tired of waiting for his settlement money after nearly two years. It's a situation familiar to many black farmers here.

"We don't like to say that this is a black-and-white issue," says Fernando Burkett, executive director of the Arkansas Black Farmers Association. "It's gone beyond that. It's blacks against blacks, small farmer against big farmer, individual against government. It's tearing up the communities. We just want to be heard."

Mr. Burkett married into a farm family, and he has watched his in-laws struggle to pay their bills. When the USDA announced its settlement, Burkett thought the battle was over. He soon realized that there was much more to be done.

A broken community

In south Arkansas, African-American farmers have received threats of physical harm by whites and USDA employees because of their involvement in the federal lawsuit. And at least one USDA employee has posted a note on an agency door that mocked the farmers' legal battles. Indeed, some people in this small community don't believe the farmers even have a case.

"It's just about getting money and yelling discrimination," says one white farmer who has lived in Grady all his life. "When times get rough, it's easy to rely on race and the federal government to get you through it instead of having to work for something."

Arkansas farmers aren't alone in coping with a backlash.

Though isolated, incidents have occurred in many rural towns. Flyers have been circulated in Alabama and Mississippi, naming individuals whose claims have been paid. They also condemn the settlement as a "rip-off" and target the government, saying it needs to pander to minorities.

This behavior has proved troubling for the USDA and its Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Recently, Mr. Glickman acknowledged that the USDA's Office of Civil Rights, which investigates racial-discrimination complaints, had been unable to handle the influx of discrimination complaints against the department.

Losing patience with the USDA, farmers are holding protests and marches throughout the South and in Washington in hopes they will be heard. And Glickman has said that these grass-roots efforts have caught his attention.

On a steamy Saturday in Little Rock, Carpenter, a short, spry man with endless enthusiasm, marched with 50 fellow farmers, holding signs and chanting: "No farms, No food, No justice, No peace."

"We will continue marching and letting people know that just because the government says they will give money, it's not that easy," says Carpenter. "We have a fight on our hands and we will continue to fight for our money and our rights."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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