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Published: Saturday, 6/23/2007

Government still shortchanges Delta's black farmers, towns

BY ROSE RUSSELL

NO MATTER how much the President says otherwise, his administration continues to show unfriendliness to minorities. The world witnessed that when the administration didn't promptly or properly respond to Gulf Coast citizens left to fend for themselves after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And 22 months later, New Orleans' minorities are not much better off.

The Bush Administration's blatant contempt for black Americans is also displayed in the ongoing account of favoritism for white farmers over black farmers, and in how large farm subsidies are doled out to big, white-owned commercial farms, compared to the trickling of funds given rural development in mostly poor, black towns.

A Washington Post report this week stirred memories of a lawsuit brought by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Settlements are still being pursued, but unfairness on the part of the federal government remains apparent in the undeveloped Mississippi Delta.

No wonder the Agriculture Department refused to comment for the Post story. Between 2001 and 2005, the government spent almost $1.2 billion in agricultural subsidies to increase farmers' incomes and improve the economy in the Mississippi Delta. The newspaper said 95 percent of the funding went to big commercial farms, all owned by white farmers, and that less than 5 percent went to black farmers - in a Catch-22 - because they don't own as much land and thus don't meet conditions for the subsidies.

Also in that five-year period in one county, Bolivar, farmers received $200 million in crop subsidies and only $11 million in Rural Development grants. The grants are supposed to aid struggling communities establish housing, businesses, and various infrastructure.

That disparity between farm subsidies and rural development funds is part of the problem in federal farm policy. The policy, the Post points out, favors big farms over small farms and poor rural communities.

"The policy choice that Congress has made is so stark. You see the effects in lots of poor rural communities. But the tragedy is exacerbated in the minority communities," Charles Fluharty, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia was quoted saying.

Ben Burkett, an African-American with a small farm, said that in the Delta most of the economy has been controlled by large families for the last few hundred years. "We'd like to break that cycle and create new businesses. But there's not much money for that. You see what we get from Rural Development. It's not much, is it?"

Breaking the cycle may not happen soon for a couple of reasons. Not surprisingly, the ghosts of racial unfairness and discrimination still have a stranglehold on the Delta. It won't likely change until county farm committees become more diverse. Nationwide there are more than 7,880 committee members, and only 90 are black, with just eight in Mississippi.

Yvonne Brown, mayor of Tchula, Miss., and a former Toledoan, knows well that minority farmers and rural communities suffer as a result of the unfair distribution of farm subsidies. And because there are fewer minority farmers, there are fewer community markets, and that, Mayor Brown believes, directly effects the increase in obesity.

One of Mayor Brown's predecessors, Eddie Carthan, the first black mayor of Tchula, who was elected in 1977, witnessed firsthand the federal government's oppression of black farmers. He detailed in a 1999 interview in the Militant, a publication for employees, corruption in the system when he explained the hassles he encountered trying to get a government loan.

"You go through all this trouble, and if you do finally get a loan, it's too late. After all, farming is a timing operation," he noted. He added that because white farmers wouldn't gin black farmers' cotton, they were forced to travel 30 or 40 miles away where they were charged more.

"These are the same people who are trying to get your land, through delaying your loans, selling you bad seed, and in other ways. They try to break your spirit by going after you in all kinds of ways," he said.

It's too bad that eight years later, much of what Mr. Carthan said seems to still apply now. Part of the explanation for that - which brings me to the second reason that the cycle of unfairness won't be broken soon - is that the Bush Administration apparently condones the Agriculture Department's granting large subsidies to white farmers and small Rural Development grants to predominantly black rural communities.

It's sad enough when private industry mistreats U.S. citizens. It's especially egregious when citizens are treated unfairly by their own government, the very body they should be able to look to for redress.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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