“This brings tears to my eyes”: A civil rights leader reacts to Vilsack nomination with grief and fury

Former secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

USDA/Lance Cheung

Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, explains why Tom Vilsack’s nomination to lead USDA has stoked intense feelings of betrayal.

Since Tuesday evening, Lawrence Lucas’s phone has been ringing nonstop—calls that start early in the morning, and keep coming late into the night. As president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, an organization that has advocated for U.S. Department of Agriculture staff in civil rights matters for more than 25 years, people turn to him when there’s a problem. Tom Vilsack, it turns out, is a serious problem.

The government employees, farmers, and advocates Lucas is hearing from are all saying the same thing: They’re astonished and angered that president-elect Joe Biden would consider nominating Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary for eight years under President Obama, to resume his post as head of USDA. The rumors started Tuesday night, and on Thursday morning Biden made the news official.

As a 2019 investigation by The Counter found, Vilsack presided over a culture of rampant discrimination during his time at Obama’s USDA. Under his leadership, the department falsely claimed a series of civil rights achievements that were based on distorted and misleading census data. Meanwhile, Vilsack’s unwillingness to act on thousands of civil rights complaints, including many that challenged the agency’s discriminatory lending practices, resulted in some Black farmers losing their land to foreclosure and seizure by the government. (Lucas was one of many sources The Counter’s reporters spoke to for the 2019 investigation.)

Lucas knows this painful history well: He, his USDA colleagues, and the farmers he represents, have lived it. Still, earlier this year, he had reason to be optimistic. The coalition’s plan to improve equity in U.S. food and agriculture, Lucas said, helped to inspire an official policy proposal on that topic during Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president. It also helped to influence newly proposed legislation, known as “The Justice for Black Farmers Act,” that Warren co-sponsored with Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

But this week, Lucas fears that progress will be derailed. “Here we have an act to change things once and for all at USDA,” he said, “and we have a secretary-to-be that we feel would not carry out and implement the act in its fullest.”

Lucas went to work at USDA in 1977 as a speechwriter, a political appointee of the Carter administration. Employees sought him out for help with civil rights issues because of his position and influence, but also because he’d formally complained about the discrimination he experienced at USDA. “I understood the process because I had to go through it myself,” he said. “I wanted to make sure no one went through that process by themselves alone.”

From left, John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, Lawrence Lucas, president USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, talk before the start of the House Judiciary Committee Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on H.R.558, the

Lucas, center, with Sen. Chuck Grassley and John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, before the start of the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the “African-American Farmers Benefits Relief Act of 2007,” Thursday, June 21, 2007.

AP Photo/Bill Clark

In 1995, he retired to focus on his work as president and founding member of the coalition, which represents thousands of employees within USDA, and also advocates on behalf of farmers unfairly impacted by the department’s practices. He has testified before both houses of Congress about discrimination faced by USDA employees and the farmers they serve.

In a conversation by phone on Wednesday, Lucas talked about why Vilsack’s nomination has been so surprising, hurtful, and immediately detrimental to the incoming administration’s reputation on civil rights. His remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

—Joe Fassler

Lawrence Lucas: The cry that I’ve been hearing started late last night, calls that kept me up until midnight responding. I was up again answering calls early this morning. The people I’m hearing from all want answers to the same question: How could the Democratic Party and the Biden administration select such a person as Tom Vilsack for this position?

My phone has been jumping off the hook with people telling me that they do not support this decision by the Biden administration. They want me to do everything that I can as their spokesperson to defy this attempt to put someone in that job who has shown such arrogance and indifference to civil rights. He has inflicted enough suffering. Lives and land lost that will never be returned, not to mention wealth that is forever gone from a race of people. This brings tears to my eyes.

Editors’ note: Dan Glickman, who served as USDA secretary from March 1995 through the end of the Clinton administration, is credited with making civil rights a central issue at the agency, including commissioning the most comprehensive government reviews to date of the department’s civil rights shortcomings.

Tom Vilsack’s record is an abysmal one when it comes to civil rights at USDA. He had an opportunity to continue what the Clinton administration did during their term under Dan Glickman. But instead of doing something to resolve the problem, he only exacerbated it.

When farmers feel they have been discriminated against by the county commission system—the part of the Farm Service Agency that provides loans and other services to farmers, and makes decisions about when to foreclose on them—they can complain to the USDA Civil Rights Office. The Civil Rights Office is supposed to take in the cases that are filed, make sure they’re put in a tracking system, give the farmers the opportunity to resolve their complaints, and make sure that their complaints are addressed in a timely fashion. Farmers are supposed to have the opportunity to resolve their case either through the Office of Civil Rights or have it done by the administrative law judge at USDA. But efforts in that regard were not taken seriously by the Vilsack administration. They just didn’t care.

Many farmers don’t have advocates or lawyers. They’re at the mercy of the goodwill of the Department to do what the law requires: treat farmers who file complaints with dignity and respect, file and record and investigate their cases, and seek to resolve those cases. Too often, that hasn’t happened. When Vilsack took over USDA, there were approximately 14,000 discrimination cases pending. Many of those cases were farmer cases. Virtually none of those cases have been resolved.

With this nomination, the people I represent are feeling a sense of betrayal.

Meanwhile, many new cases that that were built up during his administration, and now through Trump, haven’t seen movement toward a resolution. There has been no pathway for those farmers to get justice at USDA. What ends up happening is that their cases are left alone until they fall outside the statute of limitations. Without ever determining whether these farmers were discriminated against, USDA can then begin to foreclose on them and take their land.

I know of a number of farm groups that attempted to sit down and talk to Vilsack about the continued discrimination at the county committee level, as well as the continued mishandling of their cases. He did nothing. I do not see evidence that that there was any major effort, during his eight years at USDA, to resolve the systemic problem of discrimination against minority farmers, whether they be Black or otherwise. But he also failed to address the systemic racism and sexism that exists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself.

During Vilsack’s administration, we were looking for a change in the culture at USDA. There is an existing culture there that perpetuates discrimination against employees. And there is a plantation culture that keeps women relegated to lower-level positions. The most egregious example is in the Forest Service, where women employees have endured not only discrimination but assault and rape.

RelatedHow USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers

For more on the Office of General Counsel’s conflict of interest in civil rights cases at USDA, read The Counter’s investigation into the department’s discriminatory practices under Tom Vilsack.

Part of the problem is that the Office of General Counsel has been allowed to control the civil rights process at USDA. That office controls the process as to how people’s cases, both farmers and employees, are handled—and it’s supposed to spend most of its time and tax dollars making sure that the process works and that cases move through the system. But, at the same time, it represents USDA in court. There is supposed to be a firewall between the Office of General Counsel and USDA’s Office of Civil Rights, so that there would be accountability. But virtually none of that was being done in any major form during the Vilsack administration at USDA. Instead, under Vilsack, the Office of General Counsel actively fought to dismiss employee’s complaints, running roughshod over the civil right process. The whole idea is for employees and farmers to be treated with dignity and respect. That dignity and respect was absent.

In 2011, the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees met with Tom Vilsack, his chief of staff, and other staff members. In addition to Black farmers, who we had been working with since 1995, we also had women from California, from the Forest Service. We came with a list of many recommendations that we thought would help to improve things. We were in the room. Tom Vilsack made promises that he was going to fix the problems, and we walked out of that meeting thinking that he would. But he did nothing. Instead of things getting better for many of those farmers, they continued to be foreclosed on. The women’s cases continued to be ignored. In fact, instead of getting better, things went downhill for the farmers and the employees after that.

Archival photo of Lucas, center, in a 2011 meeting with then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, far right. Lucas says that the concerns of those present—including Black farmers and women employees of the Forest Service—were never acted upon.

Archival photo of Lucas, center, in a 2011 meeting with then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, far right. Lucas says that the concerns of those present—including Black farmers and women employees of the Forest Service—were never acted upon.

With this nomination, the people I represent are feeling a sense of betrayal. It’s not only betrayal by the Biden administration. They’re also voicing how betrayed they feel by the Black leadership in Washington that’s allowing this to happen. Some Blacks are saying, Why should we vote? Why should we vote in Georgia, if the Biden campaign is going to treat us the same way the Trump administration treats us? I had not heard that before. That’s how serious this matter is.

I saw many things in my years at USDA. I’ve seen racial epithets written on the walls. I’ve seen employees get monkey dolls as an award. I knew of an incident where a white person held a hangman’s noose in front a Black employee. When the Office of General Counsel investigated it, they publicly said that employee was a “good employee.”

These experiences and others have molded and cemented my commitment to civil rights. Since I retired in 1995, I’ve spent most of my time and some of my money fighting for the people that come to us as farmers and USDA employees. I have committed to spend as much time as I can in my retirement trying to make a difference in the lives of those that continue to suffer racism, sexism, and other abuses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now, what I’m hearing is frustration, disappointment, and anger. I’m hearing how appalled people are that the Biden administration would have the audacity to nominate Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture—knowing that there is so much evidence regarding his poor track record on civil rights. This administration claims its agenda is to cure the ills and bring this country together. I do not believe you can bring this country together with Tom Vilsack set to carry out such a monumental responsibility at USDA. We feel as though he is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

The following letters, reprinted with permission of their authors, were provided by Lucas as an indication of the intense feelings stoked by Vilsack’s nomination.

Lloyd E. Wright is former director of the Office of Civil Rights at USDA. He was a major source in The Counter’s 2019 investigation into the departments civil rights record under Vilsack.

Cory Lea is a rancher and organizer who serves as executive director of the Cowtown Foundation.

Lawrence Lucas is president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.