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Government yet to pay racial bias settlement to black farmers

From Paul Courson, CNN
Black farmers rallied outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington, D.C. on February 15.
Black farmers rallied outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington, D.C. on February 15.
  • U.S. government agreed to pay qualified farmers $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias
  • Lawsuit claimed U.S. Agriculture Department discriminated against black farmers
  • Farmers can withdraw from class-action settlement, pursue independent claim

Washington (CNN) -- Black farmers hoping for government settlement money in a racial bias case better not bet the crop this Spring, until Congress finds a way to pay for the $1 billion deal. A meeting Wednesday at the White House may not have provided much encouragement.

Litigation known as "The Pigford Case" established a longstanding pattern of discrimination at the U.S. Agriculture Department against black farmers who had applied for farm loans and support from federal programs.

Under the terms of a process overseen by a federal judge and dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias. In addition, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said those farmers may pursue a claim for actual damages from the bias and potentially receive up to $250,000.

The $1 billion settlement, which covers as many as 80,000 black farmers, still needs to be funded by Congress. A deadline of March 31 passed, and farmers now may withdraw from the settlement and pursue independent litigation against the government.

"Nobody's pulled out yet," said John Boyd, the head of the National Black Farmers Association, "but if we don't get things moving, it may come to that."

Boyd said a meeting Wednesday at the White House seemed to bring only empty promises from staffers. "I want to meet with the president," Boyd said, explaining that during Barack Obama's presidential campaign "we helped register people to vote, and I deserve the opportunity."

Farmers now have until May 31 to withdraw from the pending class-action settlement and pursue an independent claim against the government if they feel their chances would be better for a payout. If they choose to stay in the class, they will wait as a group to apply for the promised monetary damages.

Vilsack has said there's no question the damages are due for black farmers. In a statement Wednesday he said, "I have met with and talked to key stakeholders and members of Congress reiterating the administration's ongoing efforts to close this chapter in the history of the department."