Why are USDA officials off the hook in case of bias against black farmers?

As President Obama signs a taxpayer-funded settlement in case of bias against black farmers, some Americans ask: Why didn't any heads roll? Ex-USDA employee Shirley Sherrod is one.

Tony Avelar /The Christian Science Monitor
Taxpayers now on the hook for settling tens of thousands of claims to correct an injustice by the USDA that led to the demise of thousands of black farms across the heartland.

Discriminating against black farmers turned out to be a giant mistake for the US Department of Agriculture, with taxpayers now on the hook for settling tens of thousands of claims to correct an injustice that led to the demise of thousands of black farms across the heartland. Yet the only USDA official even remotely involved in the so-called Pigford II settlement to ever get fired, or even punished, was Georgia rural director Shirley Sherrod, who is black.

Ms. Sherrod found herself at the center of racial firestorm in July, when a conservative commentator circulated a video in which Sherrod acknowledged her refusal to help a white farmer to the best of her ability. She was subsequently fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and then invited back when the full, unedited context of her remarks became known. (She declined the offer.)

USDA's failure to punish those responsible for bias against black farmers has drawn criticism from an unlikely alliance that includes black farmers, conservatives such as Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, Sherrod herself, and, bizarrely, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who posted the video that got Sherrod fired.

SPECIAL REPORT: Beyond Racism: Lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice

"The government stands to pay out over $2 billion for discrimination against African Americans and not one person in the department has been fired because of that, yet the first African American woman to [oversee rural development] in Georgia was fired for alleged racism," Jerry Pennick, director of the Federation of the Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, told the Washington Post in July. "And nobody has been fired for proven discrimination."

Asked about that last month, Secretary Vilsack approached carefully the question of why USDA officials whom the government now acknowledges discriminated against black farmers are still on the job. As part of the settlement, which President Obama signed into law Wednesday, the USDA admitted no guilt or wrongdoing.

"It might be somewhat difficult to be able to establish responsibility for something that may have occurred 20 or 30 years ago," Vilsack told reporters in a phone conference. "I think what we ought to be doing is focusing ... on making sure we're serving today's farmers as well as we possibly can."

Critics, however, ask how Vilsack's attempt to reform the USDA can be effective when key officials responsible for discrimination are not singled out.

Some conservatives argue that USDA failure to punish certain career officials, many of whom still are in place in county offices across the US, is an indication that the Pigford settlement is less about USDA practices and more about righting generic historical wrongs to score political points with the Democratic base, including blacks.

“They admit to no wrongdoing, they press the taxpayers and apparently have succeeded in squeezing $2.3 billion out of the taxpayers, but they don’t have any blame, and they’re not punishing anybody,” Representative King said recently. “So, how can Americans that think logically accept that as a rational position?"

Sherrod herself struck a similar tone in a July interview on NBC's "Today" show.

"Discrimination happens in USDA.... And it's there because the agency never did deal with the people who caused it," Sherrod said. "No one lost their job because they discriminated against black farmers, Hispanic farmers, Native American farmers, women farmers.... Those individuals ... some have retired, but many of them are still there."

Speaking last week in Battle Creek, Mich., Sherrod – who was part of the New Communities Cooperative in the 1970s, the largest black cooperative in the country – hailed the passage of Pigford II, which could pay out an average of $50,000 to as many as 80,000 black claimants.

Sherrod, who is unemployed, was quoted in the Battle Creek Enquirer as saying, "This doesn't solve everything. But at least this brings some type of resolution to the matter. It's good to see that – at the least – this country will do something for these farmers out there who still need justice."

As it turns out, Sherrod and her husband, Charles, a college professor, are beneficiaries of the settlement through her involvement with the New Communities Cooperative. They stand to get $300,000 from the settlement, and members of the cooperative may collectively get as much as $13 million – the largest award included in the Pigford II settlement.

Meanwhile, some commentators have raised the question of how Sherrod was even hired by the USDA while she had a claim against the agency, and whether that fact played a role in her dismissal.

SPECIAL REPORT: Beyond Racism: Lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice

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