THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Senate again refuses to pay $1.2b owed to black farmers

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press / July 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Black farmers, due $1.2 billion for a legacy of discrimination by the Agriculture Department, suffered a new and disheartening setback this week, despite the national spotlight provided by the quickly disavowed firing of a black department worker.

The Senate refused again to pay the bill.

Opponents say it’s a question of where the money would come from, and that is a major issue with an election nearing and voters angry about federal spending.

Late Thursday, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.

Even the attention the Shirley Sherrod case brought to the issue of discrimination at the Agriculture Department couldn’t unite lawmakers on a deal. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed their support for the funding — appeasing important constituencies — while blaming the other side for not getting anything done.

The result: Thousands of black farmers and Indian landowners will keep waiting for checks that most lawmakers agree should have been written years ago.

“If you say you support us, then, damn it, do it!’’ said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and the lead organizer for the black farmers’ lawsuits.

Sherrod’s resignation under pressure from the Agriculture Department over her comments about race, and the subsequent White House apology, renewed attention to the black farmers’ claims.

In explaining why he acted so hastily in asking her to resign, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and the department were keenly sensitive to the issue of discrimination and race given the agency’s dismal track record on civil rights.