Commentary: President Obama has chance to end USDA-approved racism

When all is said and done, and the record of the Obama administration is written, one big accomplishment is likely to be attributed to the president's race.

The first black president seems determined to make the U.S. government finally settle the claims of an estimated 70,000 black farmers, people whose hopes were crushed by government racism. Obama has championed a $1.25 billion settlement that would put these claims to rest.

Termed by some "the last plantation," the Department of Agriculture for decades systematically denied loans, crop subsidies and other aid to black farmers, at one point bringing them to near extinction.

In the 1920, blacks operated one of every seven U.S. farms. By 1992, the number had sunk to one in 100.

Meanwhile, many of their white neighbors' farms prospered. But it wasn't always because white farmers were harder workers, smarter with agriculture or luckier with the weather. They got help that was denied to blacks. That's racism.

I rarely use that term, but none other fits so well. Racism is spinning hatred into economic harm. It's using racial spite to take away people's ability to provide for their families, to accumulate wealth, to prosper. Everything else is just prejudice. And that, people can get over.

The Department of Agriculture is guilty of setting up a system to let racism flourish. Farmer applications for government loans and other programs were approved, denied or stifled through committees of elected county commissioners. The commissions became a bastion for white male power, with little federal oversight.

A favored tactic was to grant the black farmer's loan — after planting season. Or to approve part of it, say for seeds, but then deny the money for the equipment to harvest it. Or encourage foreclosures, or press the black farmers to plant less-profitable crops.

This isn't just ancient history. In 1996, only 37 county commissioners in the nation were African-American. That's out of 8,147.

Yes, people complained. For years they complained. They filed grievances and lawsuits. Federal officials fessed up to the system's being racist as early as 1965.

By 1982 things got so dire that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights decreed that by 2000, black farmers simply wouldn't exist anymore.

And a year later, in 1983, the civil rights division of the Agriculture Department was dismantled. Complaints in some cases were literally tossed into the trash.

Through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations hearings were held and government assessments written. Promises to fix the system were given and then broken.

A class action lawsuit filed in 1997 filtered its way through the courts and allowed settlements to about 16,000 black farmers. But the government bungled even that settlement. Farmers with complaints weren't notified in time; claims were filed late; others were unfairly dismissed on technicalities.

Obama's settlement will need congressional approval, something that hasn't been easy to come by in his first year in office.

To push this settlement carries some risk for the president. No doubt he'd rather make his mark, and launch himself into a second term, by handling problems of health care, the economy and jobs. If he wants praise, he'd probably do better championing issues that benefit all races, and that aren't so laced with national guilt, denial and shame.

But time for justice is running out, as farmers with valid claims are literally dying off, their land in many cases already lost to foreclosure.

And this matter recalls another, infamously neglected promise: 40 acres and a mule. In a word, reparations. That idea, paying black people for the sin of slavery, is not feasible. Not now, not so many generations removed.

But something can be done for the wronged farmers. And it falls to a person who came about at the right time in history.