Zebra Fact Check has noticed a tendency among mainstream fact checkers to leave “systemic racism” alone as a fact-checking topic. The so-called “elite three” (FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Washington Post Fact Checker) all suffer a lack of content on the subject. A Democrat can state that systemic racism exists as a reality in any number of contexts and fact-checkers will ignore it. Fact checkers apparently take systemic racism as axiomatic and not worthy of a fact check.
But a recent PolitiFact fact check, from Feb. 22, 2021, did touch the issue of systemic racism, in this case at the United States Department of Agriculture. PolitiFact ruled “True” the claim “there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century.”
What evidence would PolitiFact use to support its ruling?
Is Booker correct about discriminatory USDA policies leading to land loss among Black farmers? Yes, he is, according to an expert we interviewed, along with U.S. government reports, legal settlements, statements from the agriculture secretary and scholarly research over the years. (Booker’s office provided several documents supporting his claim.)
PolitiFact said its list of evidences would come from 1) an expert 2) government reports 3) legal settlements 4) statements from the agriculture secretary and 5) scholarly research.
Reminder: From this list we will look for discriminatory USDA policies leading to land loss among black landowners.
PolitiFact cited Ron Rainey, a University of Arkansas economics professor. PolitiFact paraphrased Rainey to say “The discriminatory policies go back decades, including the way New Deal farm programs were administered in the Jim Crow-era South.” A embedded hotlink (“New Deal farm programs” our version using the Internet Archive) described the New Deal farm program without stating anything about racial discrimination.
If things worked differently in the Jim Crow South or elsewhere, was that owing to USDA policy or to discriminatory practices at the local level? PolitiFact leaves us to assume the former, but without evidence.
PolitiFact linked four government reports to show evidence of discriminatory USDA policy.
Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs
PolitiFact used four paragraphs to summarize the report’s findings. This was the first:
A 1965 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that Black farmers received inferior treatment from USDA agencies compared with white farmers. In the South, where most Black farmers operated, federally assisted state extension services were “administered through a separate structure and generally on a discriminatory basis,” the report said.
Was the separate local structure run according to a stated USDA policy, or did local discriminatory practices prevail over USDA policy? PolitiFact leaves us to assume the former, but without evidence.
Report for the Secretary on Civil Rights Issues
PolitiFact offered a very brief summary of this report:
A 1997 report from the USDA inspector general said that the discrimination complaint process at the Farm Service Agency lacked “integrity, direction, and accountability.”
Nothing in the report mentioned discriminatory USDA policy. But the report did mention the USDA has a policy of non-discrimination:
The Department has codified regulations, 7 CFR part 15 – “Nondiscrimination,” which states USDA’s policy of nondiscrimination in federally assisted and conducted programs in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The regulations could serve as a basis for civil rights compliance and enforcement. However, the regulations are outdated and do not reflect the current departmental agencies, programs, and laws.
Again, the fact check leaves the reader to assume discriminatory USDA policy but without offering concrete evidence of discriminatory USDA policy.
Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture
PolitiFact said this 1997 report from the Civil Rights Action Team “recommended 92 changes to address racial bias at the USDA.” Our review of the list detected no recommendations that would eliminate existing discriminatory aspects of USDA policy. Instead, the suggestions overwhelmingly recommended new policies to help ensure the USDA followed its own policy on non-discrimination. The first three subject headings among the 92 recommendations were typical:
- Delegate to the Assistant Secretary for Administration Full Civil Rights Authorityj
- Ensure the Department Has Measurable Goals for Treating Customers and Employees Fairly and Equitably
- Adopt a USDA Policy on Reprisals
Readers may assume the 92 recommendations would counter existing discriminatory USDA policy. But the fact check offers no evidence of it.
Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000
PolitiFact tried to draw ambiguous support from a 2002 USDA publication:
A 2002 USDA report also said that for many years, USDA services “were not equally available to assist Black farmers with credit programs for purchasing land from neighboring Black farmers or from estate sales.”
“Consequently, many Black farmers have struggled to stay in business without equal opportunity to increase the scale of their farming operations,” the report said.
At Zebra Fact Check we’re always curious about context, especially for shortened quotations. PolitiFact pulled its quotation from a paragraph blaming New Deal legislation for disparately ill effects on Black farmers (bold emphasis added showing the part of the paragraph PolitiFact quoted):
The advent of the New Deal farm programs was a major setback to the efforts of many black farmers to obtain land. The institutionalizing of commodity price supports contributed to concentration of land ownership and reduced opportunities for would-be farmers, especially blacks, to enter the business of farming. Furthermore, small tracts of land that an earlier generation of planters had sold to black farm operators became desirable under the price support programs for a later generation to reclaim. In addition, for many years, USDA services were not equally available to assist black farmers with credit programs for purchasing land from neighboring black farmers or from estate sales. Consequently, many black farmers have struggled to stay in business without equal opportunity to increase the scale of their farming operations.
Note how PolitiFact changed the meaning of the last sentence by pulling it out of context. PolitiFact made the last sentence about loan practices exclusively instead of New Deal legislation.
Did USDA policy keep Black farmers from equally accessing loan services? Or did government employees in charge of applying USDA policy substitute their own racial prejudice for that policy?
PolitiFact dips no toe into those waters, preferring to let readers assume that its citations support Booker’s claim.
The federal government settled with plaintiffs on two class action lawsuits, referred to as Pigford and Pigford II. PolitiFact cites a Congressional Research Service report that briefly summarizes the Pigford cases and then addresses details of the settlement.
Again, the cited document failed to name any discriminatory USDA policy. The document said the USDA “acknowledged past discrimination” but the details of a USDA-commissioned study left the nature of that discrimination unclear (bold emphasis added):
According to the commissioned study, few appeals were made by minority complainants because
of the slowness of the process, the lack of confidence in the decision makers, the lack of
knowledge about the rules, and the significant bureaucracy involved in the process. Other
findings showed that (1) the largest USDA loans (top 1%) went to corporations (65%) and white
male farmers (25%); (2) loans to black males averaged $4,000 (or 25%) less than those given to
white males; and (3) 97% of disaster payments went to white farmers, while less than 1% went to
black farmers. The study reported that the reasons for discrepancies in treatment between black
and white farmers could not be easily determined due to “gross deficiencies” in USDA data
collection and handling.
PolitiFact highlighted the presiding judge’s approval of the settlement. PolitiFact’s paraphrase or summary of it: “the USDA and county commissioners responsible for handling loans had discriminated against Black farmers.”
Zebra Fact Check has no reason to doubt the judge’s opinion. Yet that opinion still leaves us with no example of a discriminatory USDA policy.
Statements from the Agriculture Secretary
PolitiFact introduced as evidence a single statement from Agriculture Secretary (2009-2017) Tom Vilsack:
“We have worked hard to address USDA’s checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed,” then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a February 2010 statement.
(Vilsack has been nominated by President Joe Biden to return as agriculture secretary.)
Vilsack’s statement adds nothing substantial to PolitiFact’s argument.
PolitiFact’s fact check lacked a subheading identifying a section detailing the “scholarly research” that contributed to its conclusion. PolitiFact’s list of cited sources, on the other hand, did include “Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment and Food Sovereignty” published in 2018 by the Journal of African American Studies.
The paper’s authors apparently did not conduct novel studies of USDA discrimination. Instead, they referenced the works or types of works PolitiFact already used in its fact check. In short, PolitiFact’s example of scholarly research does not appear to contribute anything new to the set of evidence.
Zebra Fact Check located a study looking at the effects of USDA loan practices on Black farmers. But that paper offered no more evidence of discriminatory policy at the USDA than PolitiFact’s collection of sources. Instead, it highlighted the way individuals within the government hierarchy were free to discriminate thanks to a lack of oversight. Here’s one example from Plight of Black Farmers in the Context of USDA Farm Loan Programs: A Research Agenda for the Future:
While Black farm tenants and Black farm owners attended and oftentimes voted at committee meetings, the supervisor and the committee functioned to maintain the prejudices that characterized the status quo with no oversight from Washington, D.C. Also, applications and grievances were heard at the local level, where needs of Black farmers were rarely represented (Hinson and Robinson, 2008). There was minimum accountability within the USDA (Gilbert et al., 2001; CRAT, 1997); the CRAT report revealed non-federal employees were paid with federal dollars.
The Fragility of ‘Systemic Racism’
Zebra Fact Check hypothesizes that left-leaning journalists use kid gloves in handling claims about systemic racism. Our evaluation of PolitiFact’s fact check fits that expectation. PolitiFact did not bother pinning down the meaning of Sen. Gardner’s claim. The ambiguous meaning of “USDA policy” allowed all manner of evidence to support Gardner’s claim even where the evidence consisted of local decisions the USDA made no attempt to meticulously control and often contrary to stated USDA policy.
Serious fact checks of claims about systemic racism will require specific, testable definitions of the terms. We can expect journalists biased toward claims of systemic racism to resist definitions permitting falsification of systemic racism claims.
If “systemic racism” can mean anything, then it means nothing.