Former USDA official Shirley Sherrod.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released on Thursday a report based on a two-year examination of the agency’s history of discrimination and its ongoing struggle with civil rights issues. The Civil Rights Assessment report includes a detailed plan to promote equal access and opportunity in the agency and improve service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. It also includes more than 200 recommendations to enhance program delivery and outreach.
USDA has for decades been plagued by a culture of discrimination and civil rights violations, but they were brought to national attention last year when Shirley Sherrod, a former agency official who is African-American, was forced to pull over to the side of a road to submit her resignation for allegedly making racially discriminatory remarks at an NAACP event, that in the end were proven to be untrue.
Secretary Tom Vilsack shared the report with Congressional Black Caucus members earlier this week before it was made public. He also told them that he’d already begun or was in the process of implementing several of the recommendations made by Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group, the independent firm that conducted the study. They include a zero tolerance policy for all forms of discrimination, harassment and retaliation and mandatory discipline for violations related to both employment and program delivery. He also said that all managers would be accountable for workforce diversity that he would personally monitor that process.
“There’s no question that the department, no matter what administration or secretary is in place, has been mired in discrimination,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
She is encouraged by the fact that the study included an extensive review of the agency’s regional operations, where many of the problems lie, particularly in such areas as service delivery to Black farmers and contracting opportunities for African-Americans.
“It’s interesting that most people think the agency deals in agriculture only. But it impacts those of us who have urban residences and who are dealing with food stamps and food deserts, which is a big issue in urban centers,” she said.
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Florida) said he’s seen some improvements since Vilsack inherited an agency “desperately in need of diversity and change.” He is, however, disappointed that many Pigford II farmers are still waiting for compensation for past acts of discrimination.
“We had Pigford I, now we have Pigford II. If we’re not careful, we’ll have Pigford III and Black farmers will still be left out in the cold and that’s not fair,” Hastings warned.