RICHMOND, VA. Some black farmers say the government has been stingy and slow about issuing payments from last year's settlement of a lawsuit alleging decades of racial discrimination in federal lending practices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture won court approval in April 1999 for the settlement of the suit filed on behalf of black farmers who claimed they had been systematically discriminated against for years when they applied for loans and subsidy programs.
Of the 21,073 farmers who have filed claims, 18,239, or 87 percent, had received decisions as of Monday. So far, 11,025 claims, or 60 percent, have been approved, while the remaining 7,214 claims have been denied.
"I think a lot of these denials have not been fair," said John Boyd, president of National Black Farmers Assn., which held a panel discussion Friday on the issue.
About 300 farmers and supporters attended the three-hour session, part of the association's annual meeting, along with a USDA official and the court-appointed monitor of the case.
"We have documented proof that we were discriminated against, but they are still denying us what we are due," said George Hildebrandt, 59, of Leavenworth, Kan., whose claim was denied.
Rosalind Gray, director of the USDA's Office of Civil Rights, said independent parties are deciding the claims. While she admitted there have been some problems and delays, Gray said the department is committed to settling the case.
"I'm not saying we're perfect, but we will continue to ... make sure the appropriate action is taken by the USDA," Gray said.
Under the deal, farmers who can show evidence of discrimination are entitled to $50,000 each and to have some outstanding loans forgiven. So far, payments totaling more than $357 million have been made to 7,143 people. Another 3,882 claims have been approved, but not yet paid.
About 200 people who believe they have stronger discrimination evidence are seeking higher levels of damages. In the end, lawyers say the settlement could amount to as much as $2 billion.
Farmers whose claims were denied can ask the monitor to review the case. The monitor can request a re-examination of a farmer's claim, but cannot change decisions.
Farmer John Bonner of Dinwiddie received his $50,000 payment last month, but his father and brother who worked with him were denied.
"Although I've gotten mine, I'm still in the fight because I think the government is doing them wrong," Bonner said. "In actuality, $50,000 is not a lot of money in comparison to what black farmers in this country have been through. They could never repay us."