Black farmers with longstanding discrimination complaints against the Agriculture Department will meet with President Clinton today, amid intense negotiations aimed at resolving a federal race bias lawsuit.
Although the early evening session at the White House is billed as a round table on the economic concerns of all small farmers, it is overshadowed by the slow progress of the Agriculture Department in addressing a backlog of bias complaints.
“We’re going to talk about civil rights and the backlog,” said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer who is president of the National Black Farmers Association and will attend the meeting along with about two dozen other farmers. “You have some bureaucrats who don’t want to let go of the past.”
The meeting comes during a critical week in a federal lawsuit filed against the Agriculture Department by 69 black farmers seeking to represent all aggrieved farmers. Lawyers for the government and farmers are negotiating on a framework for settling the outstanding complaints in order to meet a Friday deadline set by a federal judge.
“I want to get these cases to move along as quickly as we can,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in an interview. “Until that is resolved, there will continue to be a lot of pressure on us.”
One obstacle has been the reluctance of Justice Department attorneys to allow any waiver of the statute of limitations that could bar many of the pre-1995 complaints - in other words, most of them. In addition, there are questions about how much money should be committed to the cases.
“We have gotten them to agree to mediate the cases but they haven’t agreed to pay any money,” said Alexander Pires, attorney for the black plaintiffs. “If you don’t bring the checkbook, why talk?”
The department has resolved 131 complaints this year, leaving about 950. Most of them stem from denial of loans and other benefits and some date back years. The Agriculture Department has acknowledged past discrimination.