Unfulfilled promises to black farmers and Native Americans
JOHN BOYD JR. has had it. Mr. Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, has worked for the past quarter-century to win some semblance of justice for African American farmers, who for decades were denied government loans because of the color of their skin. Yet something goes wrong every time Mr. Boyd and his constituents think they have made headway.
That was the case in 1999, when the government settled a class-action suit brought by black farmers only to find that bureaucratic foul-ups left tens of thousands of farmers out of the money. Congress passed a well-meaning fix in 2008, but it was flawed also; that made necessary the $1.25 billion settlement this year between the farmers and the Obama administration. Now the farmers are unable to collect their money because Congress has repeatedly failed to approve the measure.
"It's almost like 40 acres and a mule," Mr. Boyd says, referring to the government's Reconstruction Era promises to former slaves.
Native Americans have had an even tougher time securing remuneration for past injustices. Native American landowners have been cheated out of billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties by the government since the late 19th century. Late last year they entered into a $3.4 billion settlement agreement with the administration after an unusually contentious 14-year court battle. The settlement includes $1.4 billion for payments to individuals, a $60 million scholarship fund for Native American children and roughly $2 billion for the government to buy plots that will be turned over to the pertinent Indian tribe. This land consolidation is important because much of Indian country has been subdivided into tiny, individually owned plots that complicate the calculation of royalties and inheritance rights. But Native Americans have yet to see a penny because of Congress's intransigence. And their hopes of achieving a payout are likely to evaporate unless Congress comes through before a court-imposed Oct. 15 deadline.
Some senators have cited the hefty legal fees -- between $50 million and $99 million -- due the lawyers for the Native Americans as a reason to reject the settlement. We share some of their discomfort, especially because the average Native American will pocket less than $2,000. But the settlement should not be scuttled because of this. The lawyers have put in two decades of work without being paid and are slated to receive a contingency fee of only 3 percent -- far less than what is usually awarded. The reality is that these types of cases would probably fall by the wayside if advocates did not have a reasonable shot at a handsome payout. Even if the lawyers agreed to accept less, the difference to the 300,000 Native Americans in line for a payment would be minuscule.
African Americans and Native Americans have been the most persecuted and exploited groups in this nation's history, and the settlements in question represent modest, but achievable, efforts to address discrete harms. The White House and Congress should work diligently to ensure that these most recent promises become reality.