The billion dollar settlement due to the Black farmers that allege discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture hangs in the balance as a federal judge considers whether to grant final approval to the award that some say is their only chance to finally get their “40 acres and a mule.”
Thursday, at a hearing on the $1.25 billion settlement, U.S. District Court judge Paul Friedman mulled over whether the proposed terms are equitable and fall in line with the guidelines set forth by Congress. The settlement was approved as a part of a 2008 bill signed by President Obama and approved by Congress.
The case dates back to 1997 when Black farmer Tom Pigford and 400 others sued the USDA alleging that the agency discriminated against Black farmers in the allocation of price support loans, disaster payments, "farm ownership" loans and operating loans. The group also claimed that after bringing their complaints to the attention of the USDA, the agency failed to process the farmer’s complaints about discrimination.
Since the original case, thousands of Black farmers have come forward and filed claims. Now, more than 68,000 Black farmers are eligible to receive part of the settlement. Under the guidelines, eligible farmers can attempt to collect an uncontested one-time payment of $50,000 or up to a quarter of a million dollars in retribution, provided that they produce documentation that proves the exact amount of money they lost at the hands of USDA discrimination.
However, some farmers want a third option that allows them to file independent claims on the settlement money; something the judge thinks may overstep the boundaries created by Congress.
"I don't want to scrap the settlement," activist and farmer John Boyd told CNN about his concerns that the independent claim option will ruin the deal for everyone. "I want those eligible Black farmers who've been discriminated against to get some type of financial justice so they can move on with their lives."
Boyd reportedly brought a mule to the courthouse with him Thursday, as a symbol of what the settlement means to him and the farmers a move that may have further enraged critics who say that the settlement deal is a form of reparations.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said that there's no question the damages are due for Black farmers who suffered from previous discrimination by the department, the settlement has come under attack by conservatives who say that the claims are fraudulent and the payout is a waste of government funds.
"This is what happens when government rings the dinner bell, and it's an indication of just how loose the rules are for vetting past injustices, real or not," fumed an editorial in Investors Business Daily.
(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)