The Common Good
March 2011

A Step Toward Justice

by David M. Whettstone | March 2011

Finally, reparations for past federal mistreatment of American Indians and African-American farmers move forward.

People's connection to land is strongly tied up with faith, identity, social relationships, and ultimately justice. Federal policy intersected this landscape last December when President Barack Obama signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 -- but is the law, meant to resolve two long-running justice issues, a demonstration that justice too long deferred might be justice denied?

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One of the two issues at stake is the plight of African-American farmers, who have historically faced the bitter sting of racism in a culture of entrenched institutional discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which denied them their fair share of crop and disaster payments, timely loans, and debt restructuring.

After a legal struggle in the case of Pigford vs. Glickman -- which centered on such racial discrimination by the Agriculture Department and its failure to respond to complaints between 1983 and 1997 -- a federal judge awarded qualified farmers up to $50,000 each as part of an out-of-court settlement in 1999. However, that settlement was flawed: Many African-American farmers who had experienced discrimination did not get any compensation, due to confusion about deadlines and faulty legal representation. So last December's law (initially known as Pigford II) set up a $1.15 billion fund for a second settlement between African-American farmers and the Agriculture Department.

The law also offers a response to a second, separate injustice: the longstanding Department of Interior mishandling of trust funds for more than 300,000 American Indians. For more than 100 years, the U.S. government has collected -- but often failed to pay or keep track of -- fees due to American Indian owners of land and mineral rights.

By some estimates more than $100 billion was owed to First Nation members. In the 14 years since lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell began her dedicated struggle in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, many co-plaintiffs died before seeing a settlement.

"Sometimes you’re forced into activism because something is so seriously wrong that you can't ignore it," Blackfeet Nation member Cobell told law students at the University of Washington last December.

The new law, which sets up a $3.4 billion fund in response to the problem, is not without controversy. Some American Indian leaders questioned whether awards would be administered fairly; some tribal members will receive less than $2,000 each. And $1.9 billion of the settlement will go to a new Interior Department fund to buy back land in Indian country and return it to tribal ownership; will the department manage this fund any differently than past ones? When tribal leaders suggested other distribution processes, they received a "take it or leave it" ultimatum.

Meanwhile, in connection with the USDA settlement, accusations of fraud have been leveled at African-American farmers by conservative politicians and commentators -- which is at the very least ironic, considering the federal government's years of entrenched injustice.

In the Hebrew Bible -- in Deuteronomy and Joshua 13 to 19, for example -- land is a main focus. Land given to tribes is referred to as an "inheritance." It is a gift on loan from God, to be administered fairly for the benefit of all in the community. Public policy should learn from this emphasis on right relationships; such covenants and commitments reflect faithfulness to God -- in short, justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the settlements in the Claims Resolution Act "offer a new relationship between many deserving Americans and the federal agencies that play an important role in their lives." We can only hope this is so.

David M. Whettstone, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy advocate and writer, has worked on civil rights (including First Nations concerns) and criminal justice issues for more than 15 years.

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