The U.S. Agriculture Department is moving forward with implementing most of the recommendations found in a two-year, $8 million study of claims of discrimination against women and minorities by the department.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with Congressional Black Caucus members as part of his outreach following the Wednesday release of the study he commissioned in 2009 to confront decades of discrimination against minorities denied farm loans and other services provided by field offices staffed mostly by white men.
"From the day I took office as secretary, I made it a department-wide priority to ensure that all eligible Americans receive equal access to USDA programs, and this report provides a roadmap that will help us continue moving forward in this effort," Vilsack said in a statement.
Researchers interviewed more than 1,700 state and local employees in the 16 states where most of the complaints originated and found that most of the employees interviewed by the firm did not believe the department practiced discrimination, despite lawsuits over the years by blacks, Hispanic, American Indians and women.
But the report claims to have "substantiated in part the anecdotal claims of neglect, at best, and wide-spread discrimination, at worst" at the department.
"The very fact that so many USDA employees did not recognize the real problems of inequitable program delivery is a very serious concern, but may explain, in part, why previous efforts to address USDA discrimination problems have been less than fully successful," the report reads.
The department didn't respond to requests for further comment.
The study, by the Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group, highlights a lack of diversity among staff in rural offices as well as a lack of outreach to minorities seeking loans. It includes more than 200 recommendations for the department to better serve those minorities.
The agency cited as most plagued by discrimination was the one responsible for delivering farm loans and other programs to rural residents. The study noted that far fewer minorities participated in many programs than did whites, and found not enough effort to go into minority communities to market loans and services.
"Customers and potential customers stated that USDA policies and practices, often unintentionally, and sometimes purposely by 'bad actors,' result in the unfair treatment and denial of program access which have had a broad and longstanding negative impact," the report said.
The recommendations include adoption of a new workforce analysis process, customer service analysis and increased measurement of objectives through managerial employee performance plans.
In April 2009, Vilsack called for a "new era of civil rights" for the agency and directed his civil rights division to create a program to improve USDA's record on diversity. He said he was seeking to redress the more than 14,000 civil rights complaints that were filed at the agency under the Bush administration. The Bush USDA found only one to have merit.
Late last year, Congress approved a $4.6 billion settlement for black and Native American farmers who claimed they were victims of discrimination at the hands of the Agriculture Department in the so-called "Pigford" case.
But Vilsack's efforts were nearly derailed after he fired Shirley Sherrod last summer from her post at Georgia director of rural development after she was shown in an edited online video making what appeared to be racist remarks. Sherrod, who is black, was quickly offered a new job in the civil rights division when it became clear that her comments were taken out of context. Sherrod declined.