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Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic Calls on USDA to Reform Office Focused on Civil Rights

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) history of discrimination and inefficacy in addressing civil rights complaints is well-documented, yet little has been done to significantly reform agency operations that enable harmful practices to persist. With the Biden Administration’s renewed attention toward equity, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic published an Issue Brief calling for a change.

Supporting Civil Rights at USDA: Opportunities to Reform the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) documents the agency’s past struggles with establishing an effective civil rights accountability system and offers specific recommendations on ways OASCR–the office responsible for leading and overseeing USDA’s civil rights programs–could manage the complaint process moving forward. The Issue Brief offers feasible actions USDA could take without any additional action by Congress, including ensuring division between OASCR and USDA’s Office of General Counsel, establishing a civil rights ombudsperson and new oversight mechanisms, and devoting resources to improve the investigation and effective processing of civil rights complaints. It also provides an overview of OASCR’s civil rights complaint process and summarizes several decades of the office’s shortcomings.

“OASCR’s capacity to redress instances of discrimination and civil rights complaints has proven to be ineffective time and time again,” said Emily Broad Leib, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Faculty Director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic. “This lack of oversight and accountability has real, devastating consequences that contribute toward the growing disparities in our agricultural and food systems, disparities that have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown producers, as well as on racial and gender equity in the treatment of USDA’s own employees. We hope that USDA seizes the current opportunity to reform OASCR and better support populations that have been historically and routinely marginalized.”

Despite studies, reports, and recommendations made by federal oversight bodies and outside organizations, OASCR has continuously fallen short in protecting USDA employees and constituents against gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination. The shortcomings are accompanied by a history of lawsuits that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars over the years, and lending and programmatic discrimination that have resulted in millions of acres of Black land loss. 

“There is a clear link between USDA’s history of discrimination and the current state of Black farmers and land ownership in the U.S.,” said Nathan Rosenberg, a Visiting Scholar with the Food Law and Policy Clinic. “USDA has systematically denied loans and foreclosed on Black farmers and landowners, covered up the data that illustrates disparities, and failed to respond when complaints are raised.”

“This Issue Brief is a breath of fresh air and confirms the problems that Black farmers and USDA employees have spoken up about for decades,” said Lawrence Lucas, President Emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and Representative for the Justice for Black Farmers Group. “The Brief sets a benchmark for those who hope to say that civil rights at USDA is on the mend.”

“The change in Presidential Administration and renewed focus on equity in federal programs provides an opportunity for USDA to affirm its commitment to civil rights,” said Emma Scott, a Clinical Instructor at the Food Law and Policy Clinic. “With new leadership and advisors in place, a stated commitment to addressing equity at USDA, and a new influx of funding from the American Rescue Plan to support farmers of color, USDA is at a pivotal point for ensuring that OASCR provides effective civil rights enforcement and accountability for the agency.”

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