USDA should address discrimination suits sooner rather than later

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has vowed to improve the USDA’s record on civil rights by reviewing cases and working to resolve all civil rights lawsuits pending against the USDA. But American Indian farmers are not holding their breath and they shouldn’t.

An attorney for the farmers is moving forward and plans to present “nearly 1 million pages of documents” to support the Native American farmers’ and ranchers’ claims that local USDA officials denied them loans that instead went to their white counterparts. They also claim they were not allowed to restructure loans in difficult years when others were allowed to restructure.

Similar discrimination claims pending against the USDA include one filed by Hispanic farmers, and President Barack Obama is proposing that the government settle another filed by black farmers.

Meanwhile, Vilsack, through one of his press secretaries, told the Associated Press this is an issue he cares deeply about and wants to deal with it “right out of the gate.”
The attorney for the Indian American farmers and ranchers says a settlement is not out of the question. The group offered to meet with Vilsack, but they were only told he is still in the process of planning how to proceed on civil rights matters. That was nearly two months ago.

As the new Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack undoubtedly has his work cut out for him. He certainly deserves some time to set up a plan to address this issue. But if his spokeswoman is going to paint the picture that resolving civil rights disputes with the USDA is a major priority, then putting off a group of American Indian farmers and ranchers, or any group for that matter, doesn’t seem like a good start right out of the gate.

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