Apartheid in Texas Agriculture: A Biography of "Affirmative Action" (Part 3)

Presented at the National Association for African American Studies (Houston, Feb. 16, 1996)

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing yet. CCR finds discrimination, USDA prepares to respond. But that’s as far as the good news goes. “The procedure, although signed by the Assistant Secretary for Administration, was withdrawn by Department officials upon the report of the Administrator of the Federal Extension Service that it would meet resistance from the States.” And this is where we begin to see how the agricultural establishment works. Because, at this point, the whole matter was turned over to the Land Grant Colleges.

“Thereafter,” reports CCR, “it was agreed that a committee of the Association of Land Grant College Presidents would work cooperatively with the Department of Agriculture to develop a more acceptable procedure. Although this was anticipated by January 1967, it was not until January 1968, following an opinion by the Department of Justice supporting the Assistant to the Secretary’s efforts, that the decision was taken to promulgate essentially the same procedures which had been suggested 18 months earlier. In May, 1968, the proposed regulation was published in the Federal Register.”

On April 16, 1969, a Republican Attorney General wrote to the Secretary of USDA: “Despite the evidence of these widespread violations of the law disclosed by your department’s investigations, I am not aware of any meaningful action which has been taken to correct the situation.” As a new decade began to put the sixties behind us, CCR echoed its own somber assessment: “It is disheartening to note that as of 1970, salary disparities and segregated service patterns still exist in the Extension Service offices.”

“The plain fact is,” concluded the CCR in 1970, “that some of these laws are not working well. The federal civil rights effort has been inadequate to redeem fully the promise of true equal protection of the laws for all Americans. As a result many minority groups are losing faith that equality can be achieved through law. It is important that their faith be restored and that the promise of the hard fought battle for civil rights laws be redeemed.” In 1974, still operating under a Republican administration, the CCR returned to the field for further study.

In its seven-volume review of the federal government (compiled in 1974, published in 1975) CCR limited its entire chapter on the USDA to a discussion of one program–the Extension Service.

The Landmark Civil Rights Report of 1974

“This report focuses on the Extension Service because, as the education arm of the Department of Agriculture the Extension Service has significant impact on the lives of millions of families, especially in rural areas, and is the USDA assistance program with the greatest breadth (25-26).”

As the report was reviewed for publication, USDA Assistant Secretary for Administration Joseph R. Wright, Jr., submitted running commentary which attacked at every turn the text of the CCR, beginning with the avowed intent to focus on the Extension Service:

“It appears that the primary objective of the Commission is to build a straw man and then propose to tear it down by citing many examples of contrived discrimination,” wrote Wright (26).

Earlier reports from the CCR had already declared that there was something wrong with the very structure of USDA, noting especially how USDA’s own Office of Civil Rights did not report directly to the Secretary of Agriculture, but to the Assistant Secretary for Administration. In the first generation of struggle over affirmative action, proponents insisted that affirmative action officers should report directly to the chief executive. As with USDA, this advice was generally ignored.

The skirmish of words between CCR and USDA was part of a tedious battle waged since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With rare exception, the CCR never had been happy with USDA, nor had USDA ever expressed any but the most reluctant interest in civil rights. In the long-considered opinion of CCR, the office of USDA’s Assistant Secretary for Administration was a bureaucratic tool for blocking civil rights.

Returning to CCR’s landmark report of 1974: “the Department of Agriculture has had a history of operating and funding programs which have been discriminatory in the services they offer and in their employment practices. Perhaps the most serious problems have been in the Extension Service” (31-32).

A weighty footnote cites five previous reports which, “found that recipients of USDA-funded programs have provided less assistance to blacks than to whites, that county committees serving USDA-funded programs have been chosen by discriminatory election procedures, that blacks in the South were underutilized as employees by USDA recipients, and that USDA itself in its direct assistance programs has provided assistance to blacks which was inferior to that which it provided to whites” (32).

The USDA itself in 1974 audited extension services in 19 states. “Overall, the audits showed that, despite affirmative action requirements, discrimination continued to permeate the State Extension Services” (81). According to USDA’s own figures, one un-named state paid higher salaries to its white women agents than its black women agents, despite the fact that the black women agents averaged ten years of service more than their white counterparts and had more years of education (81).

Reviewing the audit results, Extension Service administrators agreed with the Federal Office of Equal Opportunity that every state on the list needed, “at least some corrective action” (82). Moreover, “OEO and ES determined that about one-third of the States audited were in substantial noncompliance with the law” (82). The Department of Justice also drew up a list of states deemed to be the worst offenders, and although no names were reported to the public, “For the most part, these were the same States which USDA identified as being in substantial noncompliance,” reported the Civil Rights Commission in 1974.

Ten years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an exasperating process was already recycling itself. Reports, findings, and determinations repeatedly warned that the extension services were civil rights offenders. In response to these reports, USDA simply asked the more egregious state offenders to produce new plans, revised procedures, and renewed assurances. Meanwhile, with each new fiscal year, USDA continued to allocate money in support of the extension services.

“Each new procedure was to be the last–recipients who did not comply were to be subject to enforcement actions. However, these promises to resort to sanctions have never been executed. Instead, USDA has shied away from enforcement action, appearing to hope that the noncompliance would go away by itself. As a result, the net effect of the series of new procedures to effect compliance has been to give recipients more time to continue their illegal practices” (90).

“When, in 1973 and 1974, USDA conducted audits of compliance with affirmative action plans of 19 States, OEO and ES agreed that the audits would be the final step in the compliance process–if the audits revealed that the plans were not being implemented, USDA would carry out its commitment to take enforcement action. This agreement was not in writing and was not adhered to” (94).

“A new agreement, superseding the oral agreement between ES and OEO, was signed in August 1974, when the Extension Service and the Office of Equal Opportunity effected a Memorandum of Understanding” (96). Evaluating the 1974 Memorandum of Understanding, CCR complained that the new process actually allowed more time for delay and provided an additional loophole which would allow extension services to wiggle free. “Moreover, as weak as the agreement was, it has not been adhered to” (97-98). “More than 14 months after the last audit was completed, USDA had not ensured that corrective action had been taken” (100).

Meanwhile, facing pervasive and unregenerate discrimination, with no relief in sight, a few black citizens had sued the extension services. “Private citizens who have been subject to racial and ethnic discrimination in ES-funded programs have had to seek corrective action through the courts because USDA has not taken effective action to require its recipients to come into compliance,” with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (32).

Of ten civil rights cases being handled by the Department of Justice in 1975, four were filed by black county agents against their respective Extension Services in Alabama (Strain v. Philpott, 1971), North Carolina (Bazemore v. Friday, 1971), Texas (Poole v. Williams, 1972), and Mississippi (Wade v. Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, 1974). “In each case, USDA was named as a defendant” (32).

By 1974, the Justice Department was pleading with USDA, “Please let us handle Texas.” USDA would send files over to Justice, but would not ask the Justice Department to intervene. “In the case of the Texas Cooperative Extension Service [now TAEX], however, the Department of Justice has requested a formal referral, and USDA has effectively refused to make the referral” (100).

Why did the Justice Department want to handle Texas? “DOJ noted that: (1) Both the USDA audit and a DOJ investigation revealed actionable noncompliance in employment and services. (2) TCES [now TAEX] was in violation of its affirmative action plan approved by USDA more than 18 months earlier, indicating that further efforts at achieving voluntary compliance would be fruitless. (3) A referral would assist DOJ in its representation of USDA officials in the Poole case” (101). In other words, Texas was the picture-perfect example of a civil rights offender.

“Nonetheless, USDA effectively refused to make a formal referral on the grounds that it had not yet informed the Texas Cooperative Extension Service [now TAEX] that USDA found that compliance could not be achieved by voluntary means. Clearly, there was sufficient evidence for USDA to send such a letter to TCES [now TAEX], but USDA apparently chose not to do so. As of May 1975, USDA had not even sent Texas recommendations resulting from the audit” (101-102).

Enter USDA’s Assistant Secretary for Administration Joseph R. Wright, Jr., with his commentary on the matter: “We take issue with the wording of the above paragraph . . . . It refers to USDA’s alleged refusal to make formal referral of the Texas Extension Service to the Department of Justice. USDA did not, as stated, refuse referral but rather declined to immediately refer the matter on the basis that requirements of the Department’s regulations had not been met and the areas of remedial action proposed by the Department of Justice did not include all areas of concern to USDA. The Department proposed to take immediate action to fulfill the prescribed requirements and invited the Department of Justice to participate in such efforts” (102).

What the USDA did, was set up a task force. As Wright says, “The course of action chosen . . . was to appoint a high level task force to achieve, at the earliest practicable date, full compliance by all State Extension Directors” (104). In the eyes of CCR, however, the task force was nothing more than, “a strategy which has effectively delayed compliance even further” (104).

Curiously enough, CCR could never get a straight answer as to the membership of the task force. Certainly, the Extension Service Director of Civil Rights Compliance–as Executive Secretary of the task force–could not participate in task force proceedings, except to take notes, write minutes, and, “upon request provide statistics for the use of the task force” (104). Not so certain, however, was the role of the various directors of the state extension services.

Some USDA staff insisted that state directors were participating as members of the task force. But the official list compiled by the Extension Service Director of Civil Rights Compliance–and reported by CCR–did not mention any state directors (104). Wright himself complained, in his running commentary, that CCR had not reported the full list of task force members (104).

In the end, CCR was not able to gather much information on the work of the task force. When CCR checked with the Justice Department, nobody there had been invited to, consulted on, or informed about the task force (105). “Whatever its work, the task force appears to be one more link in USDA’s endless chain of procedural delays. Even the Acting Director of OEO has stated that he sees the task force as a tactic for stalling” (107).

“The end result of USDA’s inactivity is that although noncompliance has been documented in State Extension programs for over 10 years, USDA has not required that this noncompliance be corrected and it continues to provide funds for the operation of the programs. The role of the task force in perpetuating this situation clearly demonstrates that this blatant violation of civil rights law has the continuing complicity of the USDA Secretaries and other high level USDA officials. USDA appears more concerned about protecting noncomplying recipients than those people whom the law seeks to protect” (108).

What was to be done in the face of such systematic lawlessness? One could only follow the example of county agents Strain, Poole, Wade, and Bazemore. As a private citizen, one could take his case to court at his own expense. Indeed, as a result of such action, another federal agency–the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–had been directed by federal court, “to begin enforcement action against school districts and systems of higher education which had been found in noncompliance by the agency between 1969 and 1971.”

CCR suggested that the precedent set by Adams v. Richardson, ordering de-segregation of higher education, might be used against USDA. “The Department of Justice has repeatedly cautioned USDA officials that the same principles are applicable to USDA’s continued finding of discriminatory programs, but even this warning has been to no avail” (108).

In retrospect, CCR had it backward. Adams v. Richardson was not to set precedent for the de-segregation of the extension services. Actually, USDA-style stall tactics set the example for tedious non-implementation of court-ordered de-segregation in higher education. And once again, Texas would serve as a model state. In 1981, acting upon a Texas A&M initiative, Texas asked the federal courts to forestall legal action against higher education, in exchange for a “voluntary plan” of de-segregation. A chronicle of subsequent “Texas Plans” would mirror the general structure of “interposition and nullification” so apparent in the history of the extension services.

Integration’s New Clothes

After spending eleven days in June, 1991, looking for civil rights in Texas, a six-person panel from the USDA found the black and white directors of the Texas extension services to be, “committed to the concept of Affirmative Action and to the spirit and the intent of Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity.” In order to reach this conclusion, the USDA civil rights team had only to ignore the facts it found.

USDA’s own report makes it clear that there are two extension services in Texas: the white agency of 1,400 employees headquartered at College Station; the black agency, headquartered at Prairie View, employing 65. The white agency is 80% white and 47% male; the black agency is 90% black and 38% male. When it comes to jobs for executives and professionals, the white agency is 91% white and 60% male; the black agency is 86% black and 50% male.

The white agency, with 21 times the staff of the black agency, reaches out across the 250 counties in Texas. The black agency, with five percent of the staff of the white agency, covers 31 counties already served by the white agency–mostly in the southeast part of the state.

All these findings, and the USDA team reports that “the concept of affirmative action” is understood. What does it mean to “understand affirmative action” under these circumstances?

Nearly two years after the above facts were reported, USDA continued to praise the Texas extension services. “Texas is to be commended for carrying out its civil rights plans. I would like to underscore the importance of continuing to recruit, employ and promote women and minorities,” said the civil rights reviewer. That was her entire commentary for 1993.

Of 28 district-director jobs which existed in the white extension service in 1990–14 districts, each co-directed by a man and a woman–only one had once been held by a black woman, none had ever been held by a black man. In fact, the last time a black man, Dr. McIlveen, got close to a district director’s job–in 1993–the district was simply abolished. This is how things proceed today in Texas, under federal scrutiny.

Fooling the feds has been routine business for the extension services since 1964. And the feds have become ongoing partners in this dangerous dance of deception. Affirmative action is understood, but by no one. Texas is to be commended, but for what?

As we saw from the exhaustive report of 1974, there was a time when federal administrators had energy to challenge the white extension service. The Justice Department once declared that affirmative action began with the Kennedy White House in 1961. Yet, 35 years later, affirmative action is still a hate-word in the South. What has happened between Camelot and now?

The spirit of affirmative action was born when Dr. King was thrown in prison for driving without a license. Two weeks before the 1960 elections, candidate Kennedy called Mrs. King to offer help. That dashing yankee liberal dared to call a black family in distress, and the spirit of affirmative action was born. Heretofore, it was enough if one did not discriminate. Hereafter, one was called to reach out. Thus we see how “affirmative action” is a white-oriented expression for white folks who do more than sit on their thumbs.

Is the white extension service committed to affirmative action? Does it reach out? Has it produced more than token results? McIlveen’s experience threatens to re-confirm what Du Bois realized upon his departure from the NAACP, and what Harold Cruse reiterated in 1966–so long as black folks continue to work on white terms, retirement shall precede promotion.

White terms still prevail at the white extension service. During the period studied by USDA, 85% of the professionals hired by the white extension service were white, 90% of the promotions were given to whites, and most of the people fired were not white. If you are black, and you aspire to top responsibility in this lifetime, somewhere there is a small, black extension service for you. If you are white, however, the sky is the limit.

Speaking metaphysically, everything possible is really possible. But speaking from the experience of the extension services in Texas, white possibilities are more real. And this is what passes for evidence that affirmative action is understood?

Postscript

In the Fall semester of 1994, the student chapter of the NAACP at Texas A&M held a rally on the College Station campus. Official programs of that rally published Dr. McIlveen’s name, and the students celebrated his heroic life

The next day, following Dr. McIlveen’s speech, we turned to the campus newspaper and found a very nice report of some things that were said as we prepared to hear from Dr. McIlveen, but you will not find in that newspaper any hint of Dr. McIlveen’s presence or any suggestion that the rally was held in his honor. The student newspaper mimicked its professional peers in the blackout that has become Dr. McIlveen’s story. But now you know a few things about the secret life of Dr. Garland McIlveen, Jr., and the meaning it suggests for American history.

As we come to a resting place after this long story, I think it is important to view Dr. McIlveen as a hero and as a paradigm. I have not mentioned names of any of the defendants in his pending lawsuit. Their deeds are not remarkable, and they do not deserve widespread notoriety. Dr. McIlveen, on the other hand, is a rare individual who has much left to contribute to this world, and I hope TAEX will someday let him serve his home state in the manner to which the public is entitled.

For several years, I have attempted to get some salaried journalist interested in this story–someone who gets paid for getting in this kind of trouble. Somewhere out there are a dozen reporters capable of reporting the fact that a lawsuit has been filed. Surely there are a dozen who are by now aware of such a fact and who can call the obvious officials to account for their record. Maybe someday these journalists, too, will disclose what forces kept them quiet for so long.

In the meantime, I have been relieved of my own employment at Texas A&M University. My annual salary of $23,000 turned out to be a sum that could not be re-budgeted for the current year. So I am learning about New York winters. I think it is important to say for the record that the media have been gross in their negligence to the point where the collective behavior of the media can fairly be judged racist. Neither the media, the extension service, nor the Texas A&M University System has yet taken advantage of that historical opportunity called the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And this has grave implications for the fabric of justice in America today. In closing, I would like to thank Dr. McIlveen and Mr. Poole for being here today. May your examples serve us well.

NOTES

Page numbers refer to The Federal Civil Rights Enforcement Effort–1974. Vol. VI: To Extend Federal Financial Assistance. A Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Nov., 1975.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s