The Pigford Case, And How To Talk About It

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by Conor Friedersdorf

In the current issue of National Review, Daniel Foster has a long piece on Pigford vs. Glickman. As Wikipedia notes, the Pigford case is "a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging racial discrimination in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1983 and 1997. The lawsuit ended with a settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay African American farmers US$50,000 each if they had attempted to get USDA help but failed. To date, almost US$1 billion has been paid or credited to the farmers under the settlement's consent decree."

As Salon explains, the case is a matter of public controversy largely because Andrew Breitbart has become obsessed with it. His allegation is that the payout is rife with fraud and political corruption. I haven't mentioned the matter before because having witnessed Breitbart's carelessness with facts, the egregiously sloppy journalism he publishes on a daily basis, and his hubristic, immoral, "ends justify the means" approach to activism, I have serious doubts about his integrity and a strong conviction that his ethical compass is broken. More to the point, I just can't trust a damn thing he publishes, and having discredited himself on a national scale in the Shirley Sherrod case, a lot of others agree.

But I've enjoyed Foster's work for awhile now, and critical as I've been of a couple colleagues he works with at NR, the publication retains the ability to publish solid pieces, especially the ones prepped for print.

Although I can't personally vouch for the facts in his Pigford story, having never reported on the matter myself, it reads like a solid piece – one that raises serious questions worthy of scrutiny. Alas, it is behind National Review's paywall, and that presents a problem: As press coverage of the Pigford case increases – Breitbart is touting it singlemindedly at CPAC, and the stories are inevitable – the conversation is starting to focus is on the man whose heat-to-light ratio detracts from a cool-headed assessment of facts more than anyone in America. One purpose of this post is to suggest that we'd all be better off focusing the discussion on the NR piece, paywall or no. Certainly, liberal bloggers writing about the matter should acquire access to it. I'd be curious to see if they have a persuasive rebuttal. If so, I'll air it here. And if not – if the Foster piece has everything right – the story definitely merits attention.

Here's a very brief summary:

– Everyone agrees that between 1983 and 1997, the USDA discriminated against black farmers.

– The class action lawsuit made eligible for compensation farmers or aspiring farmers whose interests were harmed due to USDA discrimination. (There were other requirements too, but forget that for a moment.)

– According to Foster's piece, a 1997 census study found a total of 18,500 black farmers nationwide.

– Yet there are nearly 100,000 claimants in the Pigford case.

There's a lot more to Foster's story, and this matter generally. But that gap between the number of claiments and the total number of black farmers in America is what struck me. If accurate it suggests widespread fraud.

A word about the bigger picture.

There are conservative bloggers expressing outrage that Americans haven't been told more about this story. It's worth pondering that reaction. It's understandable: the misuse of public funds is always a legitimate story, and I hope this one gets reported out if that's what has happened. But the fact that Americans have never heard of the Pigford case before now is most damning because it means we were utterly ignorant of the fact that the federal government was discriminating against thousands of blacks for almost 15 years, and as recently as the late 1990s! That is far more troubling than the possibility that private citizens perpetrated fraud on a poorly conceived settlement (though it doesn't excuse it).

One narrative taking hold is that the Pigford case is about political correctness – that the fraud is "reparations in disguise," and is enabled by a mainstream media willing to look the other way rather than inform the public about an injustice. Anyone spreading that narrative ought to remember that although the federal government's racism against some Pigford claimants has been written about some in the media, it remains an obscure story known to very few people – and most of them didn't show any interest in the story until it fit into the narrative of PC excess and the left buying off votes.

There's nothing wrong or unnatural about political adversaries tuning into a story when their opponents may be guilty of corruption. A rare benefit of partisanship is that it creates an incentive to expose bad behavior. And the rest of us shouldn't care about their motives insofar as it affects how we go forward– if fraud has been perpetrated on a large scale, better that we learn about it if only to prevent the same sort of thing in the future. Had the federal government discriminated for years against black farmers, however, then paid them off efficiently and without fraud, the vast majority of people in the conservative movement – and most of America along with them  – would've ignored the whole Pigford matter entirely. Is that the mark of a society overrun by political correctness?

Surely outrage is warranted for the initial discrimination.

So often, stories like this turn into conversational train wrecks. I see one coming – and an opportunity to do better. Let's treat this like a complicated matter, one where even people writing in good faith can make mistakes, making it a perfect fit for the vetting function that comes from honest back-and-forths in the blogosphere. Let's make it about determining the truth rather than point-scoring – whatever happened in Pigford, it needn't say anything definitive about the left or the right generally. Let's use Foster's piece as our point of reference on the right, rather than Big Government work, just as we'd reference a New York Times story rather than one appearing in the National Enquirer, even if they were in substantial agreement. There's got to be a better way of getting at the truth than watching Andrew Breitbart and Media Matters snipe back and forth at one another.

And although it's in no way obligated to do so, it would be awesome if NR put this one piece online for the sake of the conversation.

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