The USDA was first established by the Lincoln Administration in the 1860s. It goes without saying that there was open and obvious discrimination against minorities in the USDA at this time. These discriminatory practices reformed much more slowly than some other government institutions, causing many to call it 'the last plantation'. After several successful and expensive lawsuits against the agency in the 1980s and 90s there were efforts to reform the institution, but these were largely ineffectual.
The Bush Administration
When the Bush Administration took office in 2001 they made a number of changes to the way civil rights claims were handled at the USDA.
In an effort to decrease budgetary expenses, the travel budget of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR) was eliminated. Instead, all reports of discrimination were investigated over the phone, if at all. The negative results of this change are clearly evidenced by the statistics. Between 2001 and 2008 over 14,000 civil rights program complaints were filed at the USDA, but only one complaint was found to have merit. For over half of these complaints the review was “no more than cursory: although they were assigned a case number, no one had even taken the time to determine which USDA agency the complaint concerned.”
Furthermore, one of the requirements of the USDA is to conduct a Civil Rights Impact Analysis before implementing any new policy action, rule, or decision in order to ensure that the change would not have any unintended consequences. However, between 2001-2008 none of the analyses caused a program to be rejected, or even approved, contingent on minor changes being made.
The Obama Administration
After the Obama Administration took office, Tom Visak was appointed the head of the USDA and was given the authority to make major overhauls to the civil rights department.
In May 2009 11,000 of the 14,000 cases were reviewed by a task force managed by a former Director of the USDA’s Civil Rights program. Of the cases reviewed, 3,800 had enough evidence to merit further investigation. The ASCR’s travel budget was also restored, and claims determined to have merit were now investigated in person.
Next, in order to get at the root of the problem, the service delivery programs were evaluated. An outside firm was hired to do an independent external analysis in order to identify problem areas and potential solutions. During the previous administration the Office of the Inspector General had made a number of management challenges relating to civil rights, and now all but one was resolved.
In addition to these changes new departments were established. The Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) was created to “improve access to USDA programs and enhance the viability and profitability of small farms and ranches, beginning farmers and ranchers, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” The OAO developed a Minority Farmers Advisory Committee to provide guidance on policies and strategies that would affect minority farmers and to be staffed by socially disadvantaged farmers. And in response to the strained relationship between the USDA and Native Americans the Office of Tribal Relations was created, and a Senior Advisor on Tribal Relations was appointed.
To improve the culture competency of the workers at the USDA a new training program was developed and implemented. Every Washington, DC-based political appointee in the USDA was required to attend a civil rights training, even those who had been with the department for a significant amount of time. Cultural sensitivity trainings were provided in states who had the majority of discrimination complaints, such as Alabama, Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee.
Next week I will discuss the effects these changes had on the USDA, and what changes are likely to occur under the new administration.