July 20, 2004

Obstruction of Justice: A Century of USDA's Institutionalized Racism Subjects African American Farmers to Dramatic Land Loss

In 1920, one in every seven farms was African American owned. Today, only 1 in 100 farms is African American owned (USDA 1998, at 16). The decline of the African American farmer has taken place at a rate that is three times that of white farmers (USDA 1998, at 16-17).


"I never even got the chance to start the chicken farm like I wanted. I just gave up."

—Leroy McCray, Sumter County, SC farmer

Though many causes contribute to the decline of the African American farmer, the racial disparity is unmistakable. Institutionalized racism within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) played a major part in this phenomenon. Indeed, the USDA Commission on Small Farms admitted that "[t]he history of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is well documented," finding that "indifference and blatant discrimination experienced by minority farmers in their interactions with USDA programs and staff ... has been a contributing factor to the dramatic decline of Black farmers over the last several decades" (NCSF 1998).

Although the civil rights movement successfully eradicated facially discriminatory laws, institutionalized racism remained and carried on the legacy of racial discrimination. In the USDA, it took the form of all-white county committees and apathetic federal offices failing to address the problem. Further, in 1983, due to Reagan Administration budget cuts, the USDA Office of Civil Rights was dismantled, and USDA stopped processing all discrimination claims until 1996, when the office re-opened (Pigford 1999, at 85). During this period, the USDA Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication (OCREA) "simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them," and in some cases, "even if there was a finding of discrimination, the farmer never received any relief."

In 1996, USDA set out to address this problem, forming the Civil Rights Action Team, which was charged with making recommendations for eradicating racial discrimination within the USDA (Pigford 1999, at 88). The Civil Rights Action Team report exposed a history of discrimination that persisted even in 1996, finding that "minority farmers have lost significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination by [USDA]." It found racial disparities in disapproval rates for loans and processing times, extreme lack of diversity on the county committees responsible for administering USDA programs, and revealed a civil rights complaints system that had been effectively inoperative since its inception. The report made numerous recommendations for addressing these problems—many have yet to be implemented.