The Moment of Truth — March 6, 1999

Black Farmers vs. USDA

Hello and welcome to the moment of truth. the one moment in the broadcast week that sings above the sickening drone of market-driven media mouthing the mantras of their corporate masters.

In a story aired on NPR’s morning edition on Tuesday march second, reporter Kathy Lohr reported on hearings concerning an out-of-court deal the u.s. department of agriculture has offered to settle a class action suit filed against it by African American farmers. the facts are these: the USDA discriminated against black farmers by denying them loans and access to technical assistance programs, delaying loans, and short-changing on loans, with the end result being that, since 1910, black-owned farms have failed at three times the rate of white-owned farms. White-owned farms have also declined in number, but white farmers weren’t the victims of racist discrimination.

Let me say that these charges aren’t simply allegations made by the six hundred members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association who initially filed the class-action suit. Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture, admitted last year that the USDA had been discriminating against black farmers for decades. Delaying payment of loans, denying loans, short-changing on loans, denying applications for other assistance - all these actions directed at farmers who were black. These racist practices led to farms being seized by the USDA, by county officials, and by banks, and to literally hundreds of thousands of lives being ruined.

I don’t think I can stress this enough: because they were black, these hundreds of thousands of farmers had their property taken away from them. Now, I don’t think it’s any nicer that white farmers lost their land to big corporations. But I know that Americans have a hard time understanding why the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a bad thing. So the plight of these black farmers, because the racism of the situation lends it a quality of deliberateness that everyday economic persecution doesn’t seem to have, is a good way to introduce the concept that economic destruction of people’s lives and livelihoods is NOT accidental. There’s a phrase, “the invisible hand of the marketplace,” and, yes, the hand may be invisible, but it’s still a hand. It’s actually more insidious because of its invisibility. But that’s just because we haven’t learned to see it yet. In this case, however, the invisible hand happened to be wearing the very visible glove of racism, something we’ve learned to see. So let’s look carefully at the actions of that hand in its glove, and see if it can tell us anything about what the hand is doing when it’s not wearing any gloves and can’t be seen.

Because they were black, they had their farms, their property, their way of life taken away. Confiscated. Now listen to this sentence: because they were Jews, they had their property confiscated and their way of life destroyed. Okay, now listen. What happened to the black farmers’ farms? It got divided up by banks and local governments. What happened to the Jews’ stuff. It got divided up by banks and local governments.

What is the global response to the discovery that Swiss Banks still have money and valuables confiscated from the Jews? “Hey, Switzerland, give it back!” What should be the response to the discovery that corporations and the government have property that was confiscated from black farmers? “Hey, America, give it back!”

You understand the analogy, don’t you? Land that once was tilled by a black farmer and his or her family is now owned by the government and leased at below market value to rich ranchers like conservative ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson. The likes of Sam Donaldson profit from the destruction of black lives in a very handsome manner. So do corporations like Kraft, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and countless other gigantic agribusinesses and agribusiness tangents. Give the black people back the land you stole.

Needless to say, in her report for NPR, which is supported in large part by Archer Daniels Midland, Kathy Lohr failed to make such connections. She didn’t seem to care where the land went and who profited by the destruction of these lives. She did report that the settlement only offered each qualifying farmer $50,000 and possible forgiveness of some debt. She also quoted one farmer, Eddie Slaughter, as saying that “$50,000 won’t even buy a decent used tractor.” She failed to emphasize, however, that Eddie Slaughter is vice-president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, and was one of the original plaintiffs in the class action suit, and that he was in Washington the day she interviewed him as part of an organized protest by the BFAA against the settlement.

She also left out a very important part of the argument against the settlement, besides that it’s a pittance in comparison to what was lost: it punishes no one for wronging the farmers.

In an article written by Dianne Mathiowetz for the Workers World newspaper, Eddie Slaughter is quoted in more depth and coherence: he says, “There is no justice in this consent decree. It doesn’t hold anybody accountable for violating the law. The same county supervisors and board members who denied loans and seized our property would still be in office. The $50,000 payment won’t even buy a good used tractor. And it does nothing about the land that has been taken from us. How can there be a settlement when Black farmers haven’t participated in it. We want our day in court. This is just an attempt by the USDA to cover up their crimes, all the injustices that have been done to black farmers by this system. They can agree to try it in the courts or we’ll try it in the streets.”

All such vehemence was absent from Kathy Lohr’s NPR story. She concentrated mostly on the “human interest” angle. You know, cuz that’s what listeners are really interested in. Not injustice, but tragedy. Not a systemic understanding of the situation, but a kind of vague feeling of loss, as on an autumn day remembering a past love.

She also failed to give the number of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, in case you want more information. That number is (252) 826-3017.

In 1910 there were over a million black farmers working 15.6 million acres of land. Now it’s only 20,000 working less than a million acres. But remember, it’s not just black farmers who lost their farms. According to Farm Aid, 500 farms a week were lost in 1994. Across the board. And if you look at the numbers, even among black farmers, the survivors were the larger landholders. The invisible hand theory says that smaller farms are less efficient and so should go under. But maybe it’s possible to see that taking the ability to create wealth away from the individual and turning it over to transnational corporations is part of a larger trend to pull wealth and the means of production out of communities, away from the majority, and into the hands of a minority who derives its ethics from a theory of life that says, if something bad happens to you, you probably deserved it because you weren’t good for the economy. The economy punishes according to its own mysterious laws, and finders keepers, losers are screwed.

This message has been brought to you in utter hostility toward Archer Daniels Midland, taking the bounty of the farmer and making it their own. ADM: supermarket to the world.

I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been the moment of truth.