WASHINGTON (AP)--A year after they settled a civil rights lawsuit, black farmers say the U.S. Department of Agriculture still isn't doing enough to address discrimination against minorities.
"The only thing you can credit the Agriculture Department for is .. the fact that they admitted something happened and had the guts to look at this. That's the only progress we've made," said John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association.
USDA won court approval a year ago April 14 for the settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of black farmers who claimed that they had been systematically discriminated against for years when they applied for loans and subsidy programs.
Some 18,000 farmers, including many from North Carolina, filed claims under the settlement. Some 7,329 cases have been approved so far, and payments of $50,000 each have been made to 3,594 of those, according to a report that the department is releasing later this month on its civil rights record. Another 4,742 claims have been denied.
"From hiring practices to program outreach to accountability and disciplinary action, we have taken strong steps to ensure that all USDA employees and customers are treated with the fairness, dignity, and respect that they deserve," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says in the preface to the report.
Under terms of the settlement, farmers who can show some evidence of discrimination are entitled to $50,000 each and have outstanding loans forgiven. An additional $12,500 is being sent to the Internal Revenue Service in the name of each farmer to cover the federal income taxes that he or she would owe on the settlement.
Another 142 farmers who believe they have stronger evidence of discrimination are seeking higher levels of damages.
The department now is being sued by American Indian farmers and also has been battling several discrimination complaints filed by groups of minority employees.
USDA's inspector general has been critical of record keeping and management in the department's civil rights office.
A top-level official in the department should have been removed as a signal to the rest of the department, which has 84,000 employees, that discrimination would not be tolerated, Boyd said. Farmers still find it difficult to get help from the department, he said.
The department has fired 13 workers and disciplined 81 others over the past two years for discrimination against farmers or minority USDA employees, according to the department's report.
Besides settling the lawsuit, the department has increased its lending to women and minorities and boosted their representation on the state and county committees that oversee its programs, the report said.
Some 107 of the 224 state committee members were minorities and women as of last year, up from 75 in 1994.