Thursday, January 26, 2017

Civil rights and the USDA in the modern era (Part 1)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (commonly referred to by its acronym, USDA) is a central and vital government agency to many rural people. However, their track record with civil rights has been particularly egregious.

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.


RGL said...

This is a great look at a specific institution's oppression of black farmers. I like that you pinpointed the political tactics used to impose discriminatory and suffocating actions against black farmers. I'd be curious to see how the USDA's policies affect farmers in different spaces or if the discrimination is equally oppressive across cities, small towns, and rural areas. Urban farming is on the up and up, although the vast majority of USDA regulation must occur in traditional farmland. My sense is that urban farms are primarily community based and have avoided much government regulation. Thank you for your insight!

Anne Badasci said...

This was such an interesting look at a topic that I (despite having family background in farming) had never actually considered! I find it intriguing (but perhaps whollly logical, too) that under the Obama administration was when we really began to see a change in the way USDA handles these types of claims. One thing that stands out to me is the idea that while we tout the idea of protecting small farmers at any cost, there is this ongoing invisible undercurrent of discrimination and difficulty for minority farmers. If we are really serious about protecting the family farm as an insititution, it of course follows that we should be making every effort to lend them a helping hand--and instead, we have a pervasive system of institutionalized discrimination within a major federal agency. I look forward to your next post exploring this issue further!

Kyle Edgerton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kyle Edgerton said...

Reflecting on this piece through the lens of my own awareness of this issue is telling. I have heard and read about this issue repeatedly over the last decade, yet it resists "sticking" in my brain. Speaking candidly, I think what's at work is a cognitive dissonance that tells me that "the rural" is a White space and the struggles of Black families there just confirm the incompatibility. Thus, the push factors of USDA discrimination combine with the pull factors of greater tolerance in urban areas, so the problem "should work itself out."

This is no valid prescription, mind you, but I think it's what's going on in the back of my head. History associates rural agriculture with the legacy of slavery, and received wisdom paints rural places as White and rural White people as aloof, or even hostile, toward Black people. This phenomenon, this documented and sustained injustice, "fits" and doesn't come to rest in the Outrage Quadrant of my brain.

That's likely no accident, since capital and self-reliance are not features of the popular conception of the Black experience. The great irony is the trope of "40 acres and a mule" was one Reconstruction-era view of how former slaves would remake their lives. And today, groups like the Freedom Food Alliance, Democracy at Work Institute, and others expressly link the project of Black Liberation with reclaiming a tradition of farming, both urban and rural.

This piece highlights how steep the climb is to reform a sprawling agency like the USDA that answers to diverse constituencies. Projecting my own bias, ignorance, and thickheaded-ness, perhaps even program administrators struggle to address claims of discrimination when they are raised. And the statistics cited highlight the challenge of separating wheat from chaff: while a change in administrations brought a 3800-fold (!!) increase in how many claims were meritorious, those represented a little over one-third of all complaints filed. Thank you for spotlighting this issue and promising more to come!

ofilbrandt said...

Wow. I had no idea this kind of thing was going on. I will start by admitting that, like Kyle seems to describe in his introduction, I forgot that discrimination in the USDA is not just big farm versus small farm but also racialized. I definitely thought the USDA was a bunch of pro-farming administrators giving big agriculture whatever they asked for. Besides being tainted by negative race-relations, I had never thought about how the harm to smaller farms is also a violation of civil rights.

My questions is then, why was it that converting the edifice to a telephone system had such a detrimental effect? It seems that tele-consulting has great benefits for medicine and law. I think there may be something to be said for the effect leadership mentalities may have on a case worker's want to consult and research a case further.

When I think of social services in rural areas, I think of welfare, food stamps, and other more traditional social services. I look forward to your continued analysis of this issue.