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$1.15-Billion Black-Farmers Lawsuit Is Case Study in Diversity-Management Mistakes

Weldon Latham

Why has the federal government been so far behind corporate America in recognizing the value of diversity and inclusion and implementing diversity-management initiatives? Lack of action plans and accountability, says noted discrimination attorney Weldon Latham. He sat down with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti recently to talk about his efforts to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the $1.15-billion class-action decision in favor of Black farmers. Latham has been involved with many high-profile class-action discrimination cases, including those against The Coca-Cola Company and Texaco.

The case was the largest civil-rights settlement in U.S. history. As part of President Barack Obama’s Claims Resolution Act in 2010, $1.15 billion was awarded to more than 15,000 Black farmers who had sued the Department of Agriculture for unfair denial of loans and other benefits. Jackson Lewis was hired by Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to analyze the department and provide recommendations for improving the unresolved racial disparities in wealth distribution.

Luke Visconti: Can you give me an overview of what happened in the Pigford v. Glickman class-action discrimination lawsuit?

Weldon Latham: I have been in the diversity field for more than 20 years. Obviously, we follow big cases in diversity, and agriculture has been sort of a standout in the government in the wrong way.

When we started talking to people in agriculture, they even called it the “last plantation.” Now if that’s your common nickname, it’s all downhill from there.

The Black farmers had a big case where they won a billion-dollar-award settlement. Then they were followed by the Latino farmers and the Native American farmers and the female farmers. One by one the farmers kept winning awards because the problem was that they weren’t being treated equally in an America [whose government] said that they were committed to doing so.

President Bill Clinton made a valiant effort when he was in office to change agriculture. He even had the first African American secretary of Agriculture [Alphonso Michael Espy, who served from 1987 to 1993]. The problems got addressed at various levels, but then they kept re-surfacing.

When the new secretary [Tom Vilsack] came in, he was committed to that and for good reason, not only his personal reasons. When he would go into his hearing for his confirmation, the questions came out again and again: “Why haven’t you solved these problems that have been going on for at least 40 years?” He made a commitment and then he took that commitment seriously.

Shortly after he came on board, he put out a request for proposal. I think they got some 20 respondents to that request for proposal. Our group [Jackson Lewis Corporate Diversity Counseling] responded. I think how we responded was different.

Failure to Recognize Problems

[Jackson Lewis] is a law firm with 20 years of experience in diversity. We understand civil rights. We understand diversity. We understand the whole range of problems; we understand the federal government.

We won the proposal. We were told by them hands down that it was just because of our background, our experience and how we are rated by major corporations as well as government agencies.

When we were confronted with a very restrictive request for proposal about how to get the job done, we went in to do it. One of the things that we were required to do was to interview numerous people around the country—agriculture employees. We ended up interviewing over 2,000 employees in 16 different states around the country. When we started analyzing our information, at least 80 percent of those people (maybe 85 percent) told us that everything was wonderful and there weren’t any problems.

Finally we realized that that was indicative of the problem in and of itself. There was no recognition that there was a problem.

We then analyzed who was telling us that, the range of people within the agriculture department and, more importantly, their county system (Agriculture has a county system where they have federal funds but they fund county organizations).

What came out of that—this is all in a public report that is online at the United States Department of Agriculture. They told us there wasn’t a problem. When we analyzed who was telling us this, all of a sudden we realized that they had a huge disparity, even between the agricultural employees and the county people.

A History of Disparity

Agriculture employees had a disparity on minority representation and female representation. The county organization had a huge disparity. That huge disparity was such that whether you were in Connecticut or New Hampshire—where there was minimal minority population—or you were in Texas or the Deep South, the numbers looked almost the same. They don’t hire and haven’t hired minorities and women to be in key positions.

We were getting a monolithic view of what the need was. We would ask, “Well, how do you do an outreach?” The response was a vehement “Why should we outreach from some of these places? Everybody knows what we do.” They would know what they do if they had talked to the right people and if they were in the right groups, but the right groups were always predominantly white groups or farmers that had been successful.

Farmers 30, 40, 50 years ago were not successful. They were marginal farmers. The federal government paid to make those farmers successful and create the greatest, most successful farm-complex capability in the world. The minorities were left behind.

Two things came out of our report. We came out with very specific recommendations of step-by-step how to change your process and your procedures. The other thing that came out of it was a lesson for the whole federal government: If you don’t have a diverse group of people doing the job, you are not going to have a diverse sense of thought, a diverse analysis, a diverse experience; if you fail to have that diverse experience—not by conspiracy to keep minorities out, just by a lack of diversity of people—you end up having this institutionalized discrimination.

Creating a Diversity-Management Plan

A 600-page report, specific recommendations, the continuing recommendation we gave—which is very important, even in this environment today, even with the budget going down—is that we have to make the concerted effort to change these agencies.

Now the president started a very good thing. What he has done is he came out with an executive board for the first time in the history of the United States government. Each agency has to have an action and diversity-management plan, as you well know.

They have to come out and ask, “What are we doing to make sure that our organization, which is paid for strictly by tax dollars, is representative?”

Now why should it be representative? Well, they are my tax dollars and your tax dollars. As President Clinton used to say, “We want a government that looks like America.”

Visconti I think if people are created equally, talent is distributed equally as well. If you don’t have an equal distribution of people, how can you have an equal distribution of talent?

Latham Absolutely. If you really want the best, you have got to go for the best and brightest. Which is exactly what you are saying.

We have these huge lessons to be learned. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security—we want to pick an agency that really needs some attention. Those are the agencies that need to immediately do this so they can be effective in accomplishing their own mission.

Visconti: What elements did you review? Their hiring and talent development?

Latham: All secondary. What we do is answer the questions of the lawsuits. The questions around the lawsuits are: Why don’t we treat people fairly and equally? Why is there a disparity in the services, in the wrongs, in the grants of all of our programs?

To look at their hiring was only secondary when we reached a conclusion that the people didn’t even understand that they had a problem. We realized that if you are in Georgia, which has a 40 percent Black population, or you are in Arizona, which has a 20 percent Latino and Native American population, those are the people who are not being served and those are the people who don’t have jobs. You have a reverse situation.

Finding Accountability for Diversity Management

Visconti: It sounds so natural that if you have Black farmers you should have Black representatives to tell you what’s going on with the Black farmers. If you are hiring a group of people from an area to interact with the farmers in that area, that’s the best possible solution you could have.

So they got into lawsuit after lawsuit, and yet they didn’t see this for themselves?

Latham: No. They didn’t make the changes. The good news is that ultimately the U.S. Government Accountability Office came and made an external investigation. They said, “Look, you need some independent people to go in and talk to these people. You need to have a report; you need to document the numbers.” They don’t document very well.

Agriculture has not kept pace in a lot of the federal government—with budget crunches, it shows a lot with all the advances that corporate America has made in record keeping, in computerization, in staying on top of these numbers.

A lot of the studies that we did in comparisons with who gets served and who doesn’t had never been done before. We for the first time were telling them that now you are underserving these groups, and their performance isn’t right in line with the levels of what you are giving them.

If 30 years ago you discriminated against them when they were putting in irrigation equipment and the farmer next door had it (they both had a million acres), now the minority farm has 100,000 acres, and the other one now has 2 million acres and they are making 10 times as much money and have all the resources. But they started exactly at the same place.

Guess what? Discrimination had a whole lot to do with their success. It was not a function of their mental capacity. It was the function of how well you served them.

Today there still needs to be a lot done. We need to have a resurgence of energy back into the entire government.

I would start with your biggest agencies and work your way down. That’s where your resources are. Make sure your resources are going to the people who are representative of this country.

Diversity Management Starts at the Top

Visconti: I find that having diversity efforts run from Equal Employment Opportunity offices is a recipe for never getting anything done.

Latham: Absolutely. If you are going to have change in the agency, the change has to come from the top.

We have gotten a good start; the president says you have to have diversity. You have to have the secretaries take it seriously, and then you have to have the agencies take it seriously.

Visconti: I think that they will take it more seriously after this election. If the president is reelected, I think they will. I see the efforts of diversity management in federal agencies is a good 30 years behind the times of corporate America.

There is no comparison. There is no commitment from the top. You see a lot of events and celebrations and videotapes, but you don’t see the progress of human beings through the organization. There is no analysis.

Diversity Management: A Solution to Inequitable Distribution

Latham: What do the numbers look like? When we started giving the secretary and the top staff the actual numbers about what they look like, there was a lot of shock because they didn’t have it available to them.

It’s very similar when we go into a corporation. They have had a wonderful image for years, but all of a sudden when you peel back that onion, you start saying, “Oh yeah, we have some notable minorities and women who have done extremely well. But where is the next level?”

Visconti: The other thing I find is that through serendipity, you get certain results. In other words, you opened up opportunities in customer service so Black people are working there. You have the management there, but that’s not who becomes the next CEO.

If you don’t purposefully go in and say “Let’s make sure people are allocated to the division where they actually do go on to make the next CEO,” you are going to be stuck in a cycle.

Latham: And following on that point, you so quickly can undo all the good that you have done. For example, a new CEO comes in, and I handed you this as a high priority.

I will give a personal opinion: I think that’s why it’s very important that President Obama gets reelected. He has the ability to continue some of these things he started.

Neglect is one of the biggest problems. I have met former President George Bush. He is the nicest man in the world. On a personal level, I don’t think there is a discriminatory bone in his body.

He had notable and great diversity in his Cabinet, great diversity. But he did not in his administration make it a priority to dig below that. President Clinton did. President Obama is starting to. He has been overwhelmed with other issues, but there really needs to be a conservative effort to fix distribution within America.

Visconti: Although it serves the greater justice, the real reason is, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, we all as citizens agree that the federal government isn’t doing a great job.

Latham: It’s to your point: The federal government is not getting the best and brightest people. It’s not getting them to stay in the government. It’s not getting a strong reaction. It’s not getting the diversity of thought they need and the creativity.

Visconti: That’s hurting all of us and so that’s the point here, and I think that’s a good one.

For more best practices on diversity management, read:

Best Practices in Demonstrating & Communicating Top Management Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

Ask DiversityInc: How Resource Groups, Mentoring and Accountability Drive Engagement

Diversity Web Seminar on Recruitment: 5 Workforce-Diversity Strategies to Find, Engage & Retain Talent

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