A Step Toward Justice

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?

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.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2011
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