ASSESSING THE IMPACTS OF USDA CIVIL RIGHTS SETTLEMENTS: PIGFORD IN ADVOCACY AND CONTEXT

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2019-04-26

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Abstract

In 1999, a class of African American farmers and landowners led by North Carolinian Timothy Pigford sued the United States Department of Agriculture under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, alleging discrimination in loan-making within USDA county offices during a period in which USDA’s Office of Civil Rights failed to process discrimination complaints. Such patterns of discrimination were connected to significant losses of black-owned farmland throughout the 20th century. While Pigford has been cited as the largest and most successful civil rights case in recent decades, many experienced the settlements as a disappointment. In 2010, a second historic agreement known as Pigford II provided another avenue for farmers excluded from the initial class to bring complaints. Alongside Pigford II, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack ushered in “a new era of civil rights,” refining loan and benefit programs intended to serve minority and disadvantaged farmers and reforming USDA leadership at many levels.

However, almost a decade after Pigford II, African American farmers continue to lose land and experience discrimination in agriculture. Drawing from policy and historical research and nine semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders including advocates, farmers, community organizers, legal experts and academics, this project investigates the effectiveness and lasting impacts of the Pigford settlements. I find that remedies to correct USDA’s discriminatory history failed to extricate structural racism within the department, which continues to uphold policies and practices favoring large, predominately white farmers. Such policies have shaped American landscapes and reproduce inequality in agriculture.

Analyzing major themes from original interviews, I find analysis of the Pigford settlements and civil rights reform within USDA is mixed. I discuss failures internal to the settlement process and forms of structural discrimination which continue to disadvantage farmers of color. Though USDA’s attempted reforms and reparations have led to positive changes, I argue that United States agricultural policy retains biases which frustrate institutional reform. USDA must reconsider its own history, biases and mission in light of the experience of African American and minority farmers in order to approach equity, justice and cultural transformation.

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Updated with superseding copy at author's request and with Nicholas School approval 2019-10-28. A factual error was corrected.

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Lietz Bilecky, Emma (2019). ASSESSING THE IMPACTS OF USDA CIVIL RIGHTS SETTLEMENTS: PIGFORD IN ADVOCACY AND CONTEXT. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/18439.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.