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Continuing unresolved racial bias

Melvin B. Miller
Continuing unresolved racial bias
“They wouldn’t give federal loans to black farmers in the South, and now they don’t want us to have Medicaid!!!” (Photo: Dan Drew)

Conservatives have two basic reasons for their opposition to government programs that benefit lower-income citizens. The first is that financial support for the programs will come from taxing the affluent. The second is that the beneficiaries of entitlements will lose their motivation to become independent and self-reliant.

However, some African Americans believe that there is a third less-publicized objection. Prosperous Americans are usually not enthusiastic about their taxes being used to contribute to the financial welfare of blacks, who are disproportionately represented among the poor. Historical evidence suggests that this opinion of African Americans has considerable merit.

The first program to benefit the elderly was Social Security, passed in 1935 by President F. D. Roosevelt. As a result of the Great Depression, 50 percent of the elderly would be condemned to poverty. Social Security was supposed to resolve that problem. However, Social Security did not cover agricultural workers or domestics.

The NAACP objected to the act back then because it failed to cover two-thirds or more of blacks in the labor force. In 1940, 31.2 percent of blacks were agricultural workers and two-thirds of all employed black women were domestics.

There was also a problem with the abbreviated longevity of blacks. The qualifying age for benefits was 65. By 1950, the longevity for blacks had reached only 60.8 years. While that statistic is diminished by a high rate of infant mortality, still many blacks made social security payments all their working lives and were unable to survive to age 65 to collect benefits.

With the addition of Medicare in 1965, blacks who were 65 or older became eligible for health insurance. However, a 2002 study by the Institute of Medicine concluded that blacks received a lower quality of health care even when they had the same insurance and income as whites. Doctors failed to recommend heart surgery and sophisticated procedures to alleviate pain even when physical examinations indicated that they were appropriate. Every state of the Old Confederacy, among others, refused to accept federally financed expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, undoubtedly because of the benefit to poor blacks.

Critics can assert that Social Security was not designed to be racially discriminatory or that the racial disparity in health care is unintentional, but there is no question that the treatment of black farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was abject bigotry.

The case of Pigford v. Glickman (1999) found that 22,363 black farmers had been discriminated against by the USDA. Black farmers primarily in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi had been denied the loans and emergency and disaster relief between 1981 and 1996 that were available to whites. The time period of the case was limited but discrimination occurred for a longer time. The government settled the case for more than $2 billion. Congress has also appropriated another $1.2 billion to settle cases of those who had not filed claims in the Pigford case.

Thousands of blacks lost their farms and their homes. Between 1950 and 1975, 500,000 black farms failed leaving only 45,000. At the time of the Pigford case the number had declined further to 18,000. If the loss of black farms had been at the same rate as whites there would have been 300,000 left in 1990.

Farming is not a zero sum game in which only the one with the most profitable year wins. Everyone who qualifies, regardless of race, is eligible for funds from USDA programs. Nonetheless, whites denied federal assistance to blacks even though it did not benefit white farmers to do so. The denial of deserved USDA funds to black farmers is clearly a hostile act.

America survived the Civil Rights Era without flagrant racial violence. National leaders should renounce any demonstration of racial disrespect or efforts to impede the success of blacks, Hispanics or others. It does not take much to trigger serious racial or ethnic conflict.