Righting the wrongs

When the Pigford v. Glickman Consent Decree was finalized in 1999, we thought the roads would finally be opened for African-American farmers to receive compensation for the injustices suffered at the hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Pigford Consent Decree was a landmark settlement that resulted from a class-action lawsuit initiated by a class of African-American farmers who had for decades been discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture. At the time, Pigford was the largest racial discrimination settlement in our nation’s history. 

Expectations were high that swift justice would finally be served to thousands of these farmers.

Unfortunately, there were unanticipated consequences in the Consent Decree’s implementation.  About 77,000 African-American farmers were denied entry into the Decree even though these farmers filed petitions by the late-claim deadline. To make matters worse, more than half of these late-claim petitioners didn’t even know about the Consent Decree.  The court said the lack of notice was not a sufficient reason to allow them into the Consent Decree. Thus, these individuals were denied entry and their discrimination complaints went unresolved.   The Court’s decision to deny these farmers an opportunity for restitution, because of circumstances not of their own doing, was not a fair outcome.

After learning of yet another injustice served to tens of thousands of African-American farmers, I began working with the Department of Agriculture to determine a course of action to take care of these farmers.  

Many of us who had been working for a resolution, had hoped that the department would be able to work through the issues without involving a long and tedious legislative process that is too often swayed by the political winds of the day.

When the department couldn’t reach a conclusion, I worked to include a provision in the 2008 farm bill that would start the process for giving these farmers another shot at justice. The farm bill provided for a new cause of action in federal court for those African-American farmers who may have been discriminated against and who were denied entry in the Pigford v. Glickman Consent Decree. The farm bill opened the door so claims could once again be heard based on the merits.

We made a good start in the farm bill. Was it enough? No, but it began the road to recovery for many farmers who were wronged because of the color of their skin.

Since the farm bill, I’ve also introduced legislation with Senator Kay Hagan that would, among other things, allow claimants who successfully filed as a result of the farm bill, access to the Department of Treasury permanent judgment fund.  This only makes sense.  Successful claimants of the original Consent Decree were allowed to access this fund.  New claimants should have the same access.

In 1920, there were more than 900,000 African-American farmers owning or operating more than 16 million acres of land.  Today, fewer than 18,000 African-American farmers own or operate less than 3 million acres.

Those numbers are declining at an alarming rate; many are dying without receiving justice.

People often ask me why a senator from Iowa, where there are just a handful of African-American farmers, would get involved in this issue. Here’s what I tell them. Justice knows little about state lines.  Iowa has a long history of support for African-Americans dating back to the Underground Railroad.  Fixing this latest wrong continues that legacy.

Grassley is a member of  Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and a ranking member of the
Finance Committee.