King Disputes Allegations of Racism

The blogosphere is aflame tonight over Rep. Steve King’s recent comments on the House floor. Earlier today, the House passed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which authorizes the Department of Agriculture to pay $1.15 billion in settlements for the class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman.

Between 1983 and 1997, the department discriminated against black farmers in its distribution of grants, prompting four hundred of them to sue in 1997. They won the case, forcing the government to offer $50,000 to every black farmer who filed a complaint against the department during the time period in question. In 2008, however, then-senator Barack Obama and Sen. Chuck Grassley shepherded a law through Congress that reopened the case, allowing thousands more farmers to apply for restitution.

Rep. King has raised concerns that many of the claims are fraudulent. For evidence, he points to the fact that almost 94,000 claims have been filed, even though Census data estimates there to be only around 33,000 black farmers in the country.

Today on the floor, King voiced skepticism that the bill truly represented an attempt at justice. “Figure this out, Madame Speaker,” he said. “We have a very, very urban senator, Barack Obama, who has decided he’s going to run for president, and what does he do? He introduces legislation to create a whole new Pigford claim.” Some bloggers see a tinge of racism in King’s remarks. “We all know what he means by ‘urban,’” Mediaite’s Hillary Busis wrote earlier today.

For his part, King is flabbergasted. “I had hard time figuring out what they meant,” he tells National Review Online. “If you’re determined to be offended, I can guess you are determined to find offense in anything.”

What did he really mean? “If Barack Obama had been a rural senator, within a state that had a significant amount of black farmers, he would have introduced this bill,” King explains. “But it’s pretty obvious to me that he didn’t have a legislative interest in this that could have been rooted in his Illinois constituency. Therefore, was it an action on his part designed to help his campaign for the presidency? I think it was.”

“It didn’t make sense for Obama to introduce this legislation, being from Chicago,” King concludes. “He doesn’t understand agricultural issues. He’s very, very urban.”

On the substance of the issue, King’s opponents dispute his claim that there is widespread fraud. The disjunction between the number of claims and the number of black farmers is in fact a legacy of the department’s discrimination, they contend. More black farmers would be in business had they received the department’s help. And the government maintains that in 1999, the FBI found only three instances of fraud among 15,000 claims.

“I have conceded that there were black farmers that were discriminated against,” King admits. But he thinks estimating how many farmers would be in business had discrimination not occurred is impossible.

He also points out that many white farmers went out of business in the 80s and 90s. “Many of them believed they were discriminated against by the USDA, the bank, their neighbors,” King says. “There were all sorts of rationalizations going on. All of this suffering that went on wasn’t exclusively black farmers. You cannot apply the metric of ‘there would be more black farmers if . . .’ I don’t know how you adjust for that.” Many farmers, black and white alike, suffered what King calls the 80s’ “farm crisis.”

As for the FBI’s investigations, King calls for more of them: “If you don’t do investigations, you don’t find fraud.”

“I have sat down with a number of USDA employees,” he warns, “and I have not sat down with one who administered these claims and who believed they were predominantly legitimate.” With the strong showing of Republican opposition to the settlement on the House floor today, King predicts there will be support for further investigation into the Pigford settlement in 112th Congress.

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