ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
We're going to talk about the lives of some people who have been "Tested." That's the name of a book about 12 men who did hard time for crimes they didn't commit. That's coming up later in the program.
But first, to the long-running story of apparent government discrimination against black and Native American farmers. Late on Friday, the U.S. Senate approved more than $4.5 billion to pay for settlements in the cases. Much of that money had been blocked by procedural moves in the Senate, leaving the farmers waiting for money they say has been decades coming.
Joining me to talk about the funding are Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians. And in the studio with me is John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. Thanks, gentlemen, for joining me.
Mr. JEFFERSON KEEL (Lieutenant Governor, Chickasaw Nation; President, National Congress of American Indians): Thank you for having me.
Mr. JOHN BOYD (President, National Black Farmers Association): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
KEYES: Let me start with John, since he's sitting here in my face. You once drove your tractor 280 miles from Virginia to emphasize the need to fund these settlements.
Mr. BOYD: Yes.
KEYES: How are you feeling today?
Mr. BOYD: Well, I think I'm a whole lot better than I was when I was driving my tractor up Highway Number 1 for certain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOYD: But this has been just a long struggle for the black farmers and for the Cobell case as well. This has been going on for decades. And basically to have a bill come to the floor 10 times - last Friday was the 10th time - and we were able to work out differences with Senator Coburn and other Republicans. And Chuck Grassley really did a good job reaching out to other Republicans and making sure, trying to get them on board.
And Leader Reid, who'd done a good job at finally mending the fences there so that this bill could pass by unanimous consent, which is very, very hard to do in the Senate.
KEYES: Remind us of why the black farmers are being paid.
Mr. BOYD: Well, this is a discrimination case. And these cases are very, very old. They go back to 1981 to 1997. And that case was first filed in the federal court back in the early '80s. And we kept filing that case in federal court until we had some success with Judge Friedman in 1997. That was case settled out of court by a consent decree, where black farmers supposed to receive $50,000 per farmer. And here we are in the year 2010 still trying to get restitution to tens of thousands of black farmers who never had their cases heard based on this merit.
KEYES: And this was about loans.
Mr. BOYD: This is about loans, access to the U.S. subsidy program, where black farmers were totally shut out of the farm lending program, where it takes 387 days to process a black loan request and less than 30 days to process a white loan request, where large scale corporate farmers and white farmers receive on average $1 million per farmer in the U.S. farm subsidy program, and less than $200 to black farmers. So we have some very, very wide disparate figures that, you know, go right along with this issue.
KEYES: Jefferson Keel, let me ask you about the American Indian farmers' issues with the government.
Mr. KEEL: Well, similar to the Pigford lawsuit, which was just talked about, the same type of actions were taken and we're just happy that Congress has seen fit to move these things forward. And they're finally getting to the point where they are receiving - they will be able to receive the restitution that they're entitled to.
KEYES: For the American Indian farmers, though, it isn't about loans, is it? It's about mineral rights?
Mr. KEEL: It's about mineral rights and the mismanagement of those accounts. And many of those, you know, access to having those rights. And so there are some similarities, though.
KEYES: How long ago did the discrimination go in the American Indians' cases, Jefferson?
Mr. KEEL: Well, it goes back decades. In fact, even in the Cobell settlement, you know, when Elouise Cobell filed her suit in 1996, that included hundreds of individuals, more than 300,000 individual Indians. And so all of those claims and all of these suits have some similarities. But it's all about discrimination and mismanagement. And we're finally getting to the point where we can reconcile many of those differences.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we're speaking about the billions that have approved to fund settlements over government discrimination lawsuits by African American and Native American farmers. We're joined by John Boyd of the Black Farmers Association and Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians.
And I want to ask both of you, John first, isn't this coming way too late for some of the people involved in this?
Mr. BOYD: It's coming way too late. And the Indians have two cases: The Cobell case and the Keepseagle case, which is against the Department of Agriculture. But this is - it's just taking too long. You know, black farmers have died at the plow, you know, waiting for this justice to happen. And many have died. And I find myself going to more funerals than to farmer meetings, you know, something that we should be doing more of, but we're actually going to these funerals.
And that was one of the reasons why we took the settlement. We wanted $2.5 billion, and we settled for $1.25 billion because we thought that this process will be put on fast track and we just hit so many bumps in the road, you know, within the Senate. The bill passed twice in the House and we thought that it would pass quickly in the Senate. And, you know, from February till almost, you know, the end of November and we're just not getting out of the Senate.
So this has been very, very long process and we're heading into another year. And I'm hopeful that when Congress comes back after Thanksgiving that we'll be able to put this fact track and work with leaders in the House and, you know, to actually get this done.
KEYES: Jefferson, what have the Native American farmers been doing while they're waiting for this to be settled?
Mr. KEEL: Well, along the same lines, the comments you just heard are similar. They're almost exact. As you just heard, it's been such a long time coming and such a painful process. We're just happy that we're finally at a point where we can work with Congress and I'm happy to say that Congress has finally moved these things forward.
But we're finally at a point where we have the ability to have the president sign these things into law so that those individuals can finally start to receive compensation or the restitution that they deserve. And it has been such a long, painful process. And people have been suffering during this process.
KEYES: John, let me ask you, break down how this money is going to be paid out. Does everyone get $50,000? And we're talking about the farmers who missed the deadline for the first round of payments, right?
Mr. BOYD: Yes, we're talking about in the black farmers' case, the farmers that missed the deadline, which is tens of thousands, upward towards 80,000 black farmers that actually missed the filing deadline. And each one of those cases are going to be heard based on his or her merits by an individual arbitrator. That's not something I wanted, but that is the procedure. And it's similar to the same set up that we had in the first settlement. But we don't have to go out and find what's called a similarly situated white farmer.
The farmer will just have to prove his case and they would get an up and down. And if it's successful, they will receive their money. And then if not, you know, they will not be compensated. So it's still a little bit of a process, but we wanted justice. And we wanted justice.
And that's what this case was about, you know, vindication and justice. The amount of money would never bring back the millions of acres of land that we lost in this discrimination. It won't bring back our farms and, you know, things of this nature. So, we've lost a lot of farmers and we've lost a lot of land in this process.
KEYES: Does that mechanism help allay the concerns of some of those who are still worried about this? I mean, there's an Iowa congressman, Steve King, who said he's questioning whether the black farmers involved in this settlement (unintelligible).
Mr. BOYD: And he always has. Steve King has always questioned this issue. But I'm hopeful that leaders in both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, will work together the way that they did in the Senate and put aside their differences.
And there's really nothing to investigate. You know, maybe we need to be investigating the farms subsidy program and why black farmers can't receive subsidies and investigating the farm programs and why black farmers can't get loans.
Maybe that's the kind of investigation that we need to be looking at versus putting on hold a group of people who have proven their case in federal court, that have a settlement agreement on the table. We've done everything right. And for them to ask to come up at the last minute and try block this, I think it's a disgrace to the black farmers and everybody involved.
KEYES: Jefferson, let me ask you to break down the settlement for the Native Americans. There's a trust fund and a scholarship fund as well, right?
Mr. KEEL: Yes, well, under the agreement that was reached, I believe there's about $680 million that'll be made available for compensation for the members for discrimination claims. There's also about $80 million in the debt forgiveness portion of that. And that'll prevent some foreclosures.
And I'm not real sure, to be honest with you, how many of those people are eligible, you know, until after those claims are made and there's another hearing that will be held.
KEYES: Jefferson, let me break in and just ask you, if this gets delayed again, what happens to your people?
Mr. KEEL: Well, hopefully, we won't see that. To be honest with you, we'll just have to go back to the drawing board. But, you know, we'll just have to continue to go back to Congress and go through the - we hope that we won't have to go through this process again, but hopefully it won't be delayed. I believe there's going to be a hearing in April. And hopefully we'll have some resolution at that time.
KEYES: Okay, John, really briefly, do the problems that started this still exist? Are you still having issues getting loans? And I mean, briefly.
Mr. BOYD: Yes. I would like to work on that at the Department of Agriculture. It's something that after we finalize the settlement, we're going to refocus our efforts and double our efforts and make sure that all farmers can take part - Indians, Hispanics, blacks, small farmers, can take part in all of these USDA programs. It's very, very important to me.
KEYES: Are you very worried that this could be held up again?
Mr. BOYD: Well, I'm hopeful that it won't. I mean, we certainly laid all of the right groundworks here and we're hopeful that we set the right tone in the Senate, where Congress can work together with Republicans and Democrats to get this done.
KEYES: Jefferson Keel is president of the National Congress of American Indians and joined us by phone. And John Boyd is president of the National Black Farmers Association, sitting right here in our studios in Washington. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.
Mr. BOYD: Thank you for having us.
Mr. KEEL: Thank you very much for having me.
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