Black farmers unhappy with proposed bias settlementMarch 2, 1999
Web posted at: 10:00 p.m. EST (1749 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hundreds of black farmers pleaded emotionally with a federal judge Tuesday to amend a proposed settlement in their discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The farmers chanted "no justice, no justice" as they rallied on the courthouse steps prior to a hearing on the matter. They say the proposal does little to correct years of race discrimination that left them financially strapped.
Once inside, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman told the overflowing courtroom of mostly older farmers that he was limited to accepting or rejecting the proposal, not altering it.
Farmers brought the lawsuit two years ago, claiming they had been denied access to much-needed government loans and subsidies.
The proposed settlement would allow farmers with less documented evidence of discrimination to take a $50,000 payment and have their government debts forgiven. Farmers with more evidence could opt to go before an independent arbitrator and seek larger damages. Farmers could also choose to opt out of the lawsuit and pursue their own cases.
In January, Friedman gave preliminary approval to the settlement, which was hammered out in "arduous and contentious" negotiations between lawyers for the farmers and the government.
The farmers insist the two-track proposal is unfair.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was lured out of retirement to work on the case, won ovations from the farmers when he asked the judge to "mend, not end" the settlement.
"The way the consent decree is currently written, thousands of black farmers will not be able to receive their fair due compensation for the simple fact the they don't have the information," John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, complained before the hearing.
"The United States Department of Agriculture closed its civil rights office between 1983 and 1997. It was dismantled, [they] destroyed files and destroyed complaints from black farmers," he said.
The farmers can "opt out" of the class action suit and pursue an individual suit, but many said they had invested too much in the current process not to see it through.
Advocates want the agreement to guarantee against future discrimination.
"The biggest problem we see is the monitoring system is wholly inadequate," John Morrison, also of the NBFA, told Friedman.
Morrison and others said much of the problem lies with the USDA granting too much lending and subsidy authority to officials elected locally, where racism remains rooted.
"The same person who turned you down before will turn you down again," Morrison cautioned the judge.
Mike Espy, the first black USDA secretary, who has championed the black farmers, attended Tuesday's hearing.
"The framework is here for a proper settlement," he said, "with a few amendments."
The suit was filed on behalf of 4,000 of the nation's 18,000 black farmers. It is expected to cost taxpayers about $400 million in reparations.
But, according to Boyd, no amount of money will repay the farmers for everything they have lost.
"When you take a black farmer's farm, when you divide his family, deprive his children the opportunity to prosper in life, you have a lot of black farmers in that courtroom right now today with broken spirits," he said. "And there's not any amount of money that the federal government can pay us today to bring back all the pain and suffering and hardships this has caused our families."
Friedman will issue a written ruling on the matter at a later date.
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.