WASHINGTON – Black farmers involved in a decades-old discrimination case are questioning why the Obama administration has promised to hasten aid for some large-scale farmers in the South while their case is held up in political wrangling.
The administration pledged last week to find $1.5 billion to help farmers hit by natural disasters after it appeared unlikely the Senate would promptly fund the package.
Black farmers reached a historic $1.25 billion civil rights settlement in February to compensate them for being left out of federal farm loan and assistance programs for years due to racism, but are still waiting for funding.
There have been seven failed attempts by the Senate, including one last week, to fund the settlement.
The deadline for finalizing the settlement is Thursday. If the administration does not step in with funds from other Agriculture Department programs, it will be the third missed deadline for the deal.
"At some point, you have to start questioning what is going on here," said John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association.
"It sends the wrong signal for the Obama administration to help one group of farmers and then leave the other group of farmers out," Boyd told Reuters.
Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who faces a tough re-election campaign this year in Arkansas, said last week that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel assured her the administration would provide funding in the next two weeks for the disaster aid package that is one of her top priorities.
Boyd said he believed the bulk of those funds would go to large-scale farmers already treated generously by U.S. farm programs, and provide little if any assistance to black farmers.
"This is a national disaster, and it's a man-made disaster what happened to (the black) farmers," Boyd said.
Boyd sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday, requesting he intervene on behalf of the black farmers to find "similar administrative avenues" to fund the settlement.
Boyd pointed to statements made by Obama, including a 2007 letter from the then-senator saying, "It is time to end the inexcusable delays associated with resolving this issue, and finish the job," and asked for a meeting with Obama to discuss how to move forward.
The original Pigford class-action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was settled in 1999.
The first case awarded more than $1 billion in payments and debt relief to black farmers, but tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline. The new settlement allows those farmers to pursue their claims.
Obama said he looked forward to "a swift resolution to this issue" six months ago when the settlement was reached.
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