USDA Moves Against Agency Discrimination
By Michael A. Fletcher
Responding to complaints of widespread racial bias, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday moved to strengthen USDA's civil rights enforcement procedures to "change the culture" of an agency plagued for decades by charges of discrimination.
The complaints were summarized in a report by a task force of top USDA officials who traveled the country listening to employees describe a climate of racial hostility in many of the nation's 2,500 USDA offices. The group also heard from farmers who charged the agency has "participated in a conspiracy" to foreclose on their land.
Black farmers, in particular, say their numbers have been dwindling because of discrimination by local USDA officials. For years, black farmers across the country have charged that USDA officials unfairly discouraged, delayed or rejected applications for federal loans, or subjected them to stifling standards when loans were approved. Blacks now make up fewer than 1 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farmers and their ranks have been declining at three times the rate of white farmers.
"Our actions today are meant to address both the problems and perceptions that are out there," Glickman said. "For far too long USDA has been ignoring serious, pervasive problems within our civil rights system."
Glickman said he would begin to address the problem through initiatives designed to better respond to discrimination complaints. Also, he said he he would attempt to fire employees found participating in reprisals against those who make discrimination complaints.
In an effort to clear what the report called blurry lines of authority on civil rights issues, Glickman also named long-time USDA administrator Pearlie S. Reed acting assistant secretary for administration. In that job, Reed becomes the agency's top civil rights enforcer and has been charged with resolving hundreds of discrimination complaints, many of which have languished for years. Reed, who headed the civil rights task force, said he hoped to clear the backlog within 120 days. For years, employees and minority farmers have complained about the ineffectiveness of USDA's anti-discrimination efforts. Even in instances where internal investigations have upheld farmer or employee complaints of discrimination, no compensation was awarded to complainants and no punitive action was taken against perpetrators.
"Too many managers . . . are not committed to and are not being held accountable for their actions on civil rights," the report said.
The report also found farmers frequently complain that local USDA staff members who make loan decisions operate in a bigoted fashion. But, the report said, the estimated 12,000 local staff members often are not held accountable because, technically, they are not federal employees or under control of top USDA officials. Instead, they report to their county committees.
Glickman said he plans to offer federal legislation to make all local USDA employees directly accountable to him. He will also seek congressional authority to appoint minorities and women to local USDA loan committees, which are now staffed overwhelmingly by white men. Similar legislation failed in Congress in recent years.
"For the county committee process to work, the members have to reflect the communities they serve," Glickman said. Glickman also said he plans to appoint a committee to look into the problems of small farmers struggling to compete with large growers across the country.
Glickman's actions were applauded by lawmakers and activists who have been attempting to draw attention to what they call the poisoned racial atmosphere in the 90,000-employee USDA. Besides the hundreds of pending discrimination complaints, the agency for years has been saddled by several class-action lawsuits charging racial or sexual discrimination and retribution.
"The expression of these concerns no longer seems like a cry into the wind," said Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition, a farmer advocacy group. "The department itself has issued a plain-spoken, clearly written, honest and highly critical report."
Black members of the House Agriculture Committee said in a statement that the report underlined the need for fundamental change at USDA, and they promised speedy congressional hearings on Glickman's legislative initiatives.
Lawrence C. Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, was cautious concerning Glickman's action. "Secretary Glickman has uttered the right words," he said. "Now he must follow up with deeds that make a difference."
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