A Black Farmer’s Rebuttal to the New York Times’ Criminalization of Black Farmers

By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad, May 5, 2013

On April 25, 2013 the New York Times posted an article by Sharon LaFraniere entitled “U.S. Opens Spigot After Farmers Claim Discrimination”  where she vilifies Black farmers, accusing them of cheating the government out of millions of dollars.  Black farmers did not develop, approve nor implement the “consent decree” springing from the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit, so how can she blame them for a botched job done by some white lawyers.

Many lawsuits were brought against the USDA from 1982 through 1998. All of them were thrown out of court based on a number of “legal” excuses. Most of these lawsuits were brought by Black lawyers. However, when a white lawyer, Alexander Pires, filed his lawsuit in 1998, his was accepted by the court over the objections of the very Black farmers who he claimed to be representing.

The Black farmers knew that they had a serious problem when they read the consent decree brokered by Al Pires, himself a former justice department lawyer, with the present justice department lawyers representing the USDA. Yes, a group of white buddies went into a huddle together and attacked the Black farmers from both sides. The Black farmers knew that one line in that document written or accepted by Al Pires would be used as a loophole for the government to get out of paying any Black farmer that they chose not to pay. The document required that each farmer claiming that they were denied a USDA loan had to give the name of a “similarly situated” white farmer who got that same type of loan in that same year. There were two major problems with this “setup”: 1. The settlement was decided out of court, therefore there was no “discovery” which would have allowed the farmers to see the records of that “similarly situated” white farmer, and 2. The term “similarly situated” was left to be interpreted by the adjudicators hired by this same government.

Over 300 farmers came to the Fairness Hearing in March of 1999 to voice very specific objections to the consent decree. Judge Friedman even agreed with the changes that the farmers demanded, however Al Pires did not want to change one line. Judge Friedman signed this decree knowing that it was defective and said in the decree itself that Black farmers would probably never get justice in a court of law and that it was their sticking together and pricking the conscious of Congress that got them this far. It seems that the “court” that he was referring to was his own.

A number of lead plaintiffs pulled out of the lawsuit in protest. The result was that 61% (about 3/5ths) of the remaining applicants who entered the class were accepted and 39% were rejected. Now among the 39% rejected were the majority of the farmers who owed the USDA money and thereby subject to foreclosure. This is significant because the original reason why the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) was established and went to court was not to get a $50,000 cash settlement, but to stop the foreclosure proceedings against the land of about 3,000 Black farmers and to retrieve over 2 million acres of land taken by the USDA that was sitting in its inventory.  Al Pires shifted the whole purpose of the lawsuit from land to money.

Black farmers in desperation not only filed legal papers against Al Pires but took over a USDA office in Brownsville, Tenn. on July 1, 2002 for continuing discrimination by the same USDA personnel implicated in the law suit. This activity forced the press to finally recognize the cries of the Black farmers. An August 13, 2002 article by the Washington Post pointed out issues that Black farmers had complained about since 1999. For instance, in this settlement there was no “pot of cash” for plaintiffs to divide, as is the norm in class-action cases. In fact, no one won any money automatically. Each farmer still had to prove he had been personally discriminated against.  But these farmers were forced to prove discrimination without access to white farmers’ records who got loans when they did not.

The Black farmers were told by Al Pires and his “agents” that prevailing in this consent decree would be as easy as “tying your shoes”. If you prevailed and received the $50,000, then “all” of your USDA debt would be forgiven. The farmers were told by respected dark skinned “leaders” that this was the best deal that they could ever expect to get and they should not question these good white lawyers.

The reality turned out to be that the Black farmers were given “shoes with no laces” to tie and even if they prevailed, not all of their debt was forgiven. In fact, foreclosure proceedings on this same set of farmers were put in motion and many of them have lost their land. The mass media has turned a deaf ear to our protests and perpetuates the lie that the Black farmers “won”. The reality is that we were tricked. Now the New York Times swoops down for the kill and portrays the Black farmers as frauds, liars and crooks, even though it was the white law firms that got the proverbial “30 talents of silver” and the Black farmers were left “holding the bag” with no land in it.

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