Lest We Forget - African American Military History by Researcher, 
				Author and Veteran Bennie McRae, Jr.



Assistant Secretary for Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture 

59th Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference

Tuskegee University,  Tuskegee, Alabama

December 3, 2001

Posted by permission from the Honorable Lou Gallegos, Assistant Secretary for Administration, United States Department of Agriculture

What an honor it is for me to be at Tuskegee and to walk in the hallowed paths of so many famous Americans over the last 130 years.   Tuskegee is the offspring of two American giants, Dr. Booker T. Washington and Dr. George Washington Carver.  Dr. Carver, as you may know, has a special place in the hearts of Department of Agriculture employees.  He elevated the science of agriculture to a new plane and showed the way for practical uses of a myriad of agricultural products.  We have a major facility in the Washington Area named after Dr. Carver, and we have special celebrations for Carver Day each year.  

Your Center for Plant Biotechnology Research trains students from around the country and around the world to continue Dr. Carver's work.  You are a leader in the agricultural and science disciplines that are the mainstream occupations of USDA.  You produce over 75% of the African American veterinarians in the world, and we, in turn, are a leading employer of vets for our Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and our Food Safety and Inspection Service.  

And Tuskegee is the place that has produced some of the greatest Americans in our history, including the first African American four-star general, Daniel "Chappie" James, and the first African American winner of the National Book Award, the great Ralph Ellison, for his classic "The Invisible Man."  Dick Tolliver, a graduate of this school, is a member of the Board of Regents at the University of New Mexico, a personal connection in my own life. 

So being here at Tuskegee is something special for me.  This is TUSKEGEE.  A special place for a USDA official, and a university with which we have a special relationship.  This is hallowed ground " a place of a mystical baptism " and testament to this is the holy land of agriculture! 

I bring warm greetings and best wishes from Secretary Ann Veneman, who enthusiastically supports what is being done at Tuskegee and at this conference. 

The theme for this conference is both timely and important: "Land, Community and Culture: African American and Hispanic/Latino Connections." 

Just what are we talking about here?  Let me give this some factual underpinning with some statistics.  The 2000 Census figures have caused quite a buzz in the media.  There are now about 35 million Hispanics in the United States.  There are also about 35 million African Americans in the United States.  This is about 12.5% each of the total population. 

Who are the Hispanic Americans?  Well, about 2/3 are of Mexican descent, but they come from every Spanish-speaking country in the world, from Chile, to El Salvador, to the Dominican Republic, to Spain.  And by "come from," I don't necessarily mean recently, although many are recent immigrants.  There have been established and successful Hispanic American communities in New Mexico and Florida, for instance, for more than 400 years.  And Puerto Ricans in New York City were American citizens in Puerto Rico well before they came up north. 

Interestingly, African Americans have also been in this country for 400 years.  We are, in fact, two of the threads in the beautiful American tapestry.  Without us, that's a very different piece of cloth. 

Writer and essayist Richard Rodriguez recently mused about the new Census figures.  In his view, who is the larger minority is beside the point.  It's the fact of being a minority that is culturally significant.  Listen to his perspective: 

"What does it mean, I would ask, that Hispanics are becoming America's largest minority?  The notion of African Americans as a minority is one born of a distinct and terrible history of exclusion - the sin of slavery, decades of segregation and every conceivable humiliation against a people, lasting through generations. 

"To say, today, that Hispanics are becoming America's largest minority mocks this entire history.  It dilutes the noun "minority" until it means little more than a population segment."

He's right.  Being African American is more than being a population segment, like being left-handed, or being over 65, or being from the suburbs or from Indiana.  It's a cultural condition, a history, an experience, that parallels and defines the history of these United States, since the first Africans were kidnapped and brought here against their will in 1619. 

There's more to consider.  One term of reference is a national origin and the other term may attempt to describe a racial group.  Hispanics can be both.  Listen again to Richard Rodriguez:  

"Hispanics do not constitute a racial group.  Members of every race in the world can claim to be Hispanics.  As Hispanics - the blond Cuban, the black Dominican, the mestizo Mexican - we assert a cultural tie.  The notion of Hispanicity might thus be revolutionary in a nation that has always identified its citizens according to race."  Thus, for many in the Latino world, what you are is a matter of choice - or even, a state of mind. 

So what is the relationship between the African American community and the Hispanic community?  Depends on whom you ask, naturally. 

Tensions have been high in some places, as inevitably happens during times of demographic and social change.  And some unkind words have been said, on both sides.  Cases in point include some bitter contests between the two communities for political power in Los Angeles and Miami; Dallas, where disputes over the leadership of the school board have caused a lot of noise; Chicago, where the two groups tussled over the distribution of public housing units; and the Georgia legislature, where the issue of who constitutes a "minority" in subcontractor hiring was the subject of intense debate. 

So, we know there's tension here and there. And there's some misunderstanding.  That's inevitable.  But is there a rift?  Well, ask the people involved. 

In June 2001, the Gallup poll asked, "Would you say relations between Blacks and Hispanics are very good, somewhat good, somewhat bad, or very bad?"  Combining the very good and somewhat good, and the very bad and somewhat bad responses, 42% of non-Hispanic white respondents thought the Black-Hispanic relationship was good, and 44% thought it was bad.  Interesting.  That's NOT the case if you poll the two groups involved.  69% of Hispanics and 74% of African Americans thought relations were GOOD. 

So maybe there's less to this alleged rift than meets the eye.  Madine Falls, President of the Urban League's Carolina office, was quoted in the Charlotte Observer as saying, "I see a rift trying to be created by the media and some political bodies.  I think as people of color, blacks and Hispanics have more common issues than differences, such as disadvantages in education, low wages for employment and affordable housing.  In fact, there are groups around [Charlotte] that are talking to each other about how they can address those issues collectively."

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "So many issues that the Latin American community are concerned about are the same issues that African Americans are concerned about: quality education, election reform, and issues like racial profiling and civil rights enforcement." 

We have much in common that grows out of our shared experience as minority groups.  We struggle to attain our rightful place in the fabric of American society.  We struggle for economic equality and security.  We struggle for educational excellence.  We struggle to support the framework of our families and keep our kids safe and out of trouble.  We struggle for safe and affordable housing.  We struggle for equal wages for equal pay.  We struggle for respect and understanding.  We struggle for political representation commensurate with our numbers.  We struggle to build a better and safer America. 

The sources of the struggles of Hispanics and African Americans may be different, the history of their development may be different, but the goals are the same.  What affects you affects me.  New freedoms that you win, I win, too. 

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King emphasized the common threads that tie people together, that tie struggles together.  His words about Atlanta and Birmingham translate smoothly to Hispanics and African Americans.  He said:  "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

So what we need here is a grand coalition, a recognition of the commonality of interests, a fresh look at how we can work together. 

Again, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King show the way.  In his "I Have a Dream" speech, he said we must "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."  Just as we know that the different sounds and structures of voices is what creates the beauty of the chorus, so, too, do we Hispanics and African Americans know that our diversity, our very differences, make us that much stronger.  And when we play harmoniously together, our voice will be that much sweeter, that much stronger. 

Today, African Americans outnumber Hispanics by 2 to 1 in Congress and 3 to 1 in the state legislatures.  Nationally, there are almost 9,000 African American officeholders compared with about 5,100 Hispanics, according to USA Today.  But instead of asking how many there are in this group as opposed to that group, we should be thinking, how many does that make together?  

The whole world is watching.  USA Today says, "An unresolved question for the 21st century is whether the future of Latino-black relations will be marked by coalition or conflict."  We don't have to wait for a century to answer that question.  We can answer that today - and answer that question in a positive way. 

The focus of our world, today, is the world of agriculture. 

As you probably know, USDA does a Census of Agriculture every five years.  In both the 1992 and 1997 censuses, the number of African American farmers continued in steady decline, from 33,000 in 1982 - to 23,000 in 1987 - to 18,816 in 1992 - and 18,451 in 1997.  Note that after 20 years of steep decline, the rate of decline slowed dramatically in the last census.  USDA has been focusing on assistance to African American farmers and doing outreach to ensure that our programs are available and accessible to all.  We think these efforts are, at least in part, contributing to that promising trend. 

One continued area of concern, however, is that the average age of African American farmers is considerably older than for any other farming group.  The average age of farmers in general has been rising steadily, now at an average of 54.3 nationally.  However, nearly a quarter of African American farmers are over 70 years of age and only 4% are younger than 35.  I'm not a sociologist, but this may suggest a social change as young African Americans increasingly are attracted to more urban and high-tech lifestyles. 

The number of farmers from all other minority groups is rising, and the number of Hispanic farmers has begun to rise rapidly.  There were 16,183 Hispanic farmers in 1982, 17,476 in 1987, 20,956 in 1992 and 27,717 in 1997. 

And it's worth noting that Hispanic farmers are no spring chickens, either.  Their average age has been rising and is now up to an average 53.6 years. 

Sadly, however, but true, Hispanic farmers and African American have a rate of participation in USDA programs that is much lower than that of other farmers.  We need to join together immediately to also change this circumstance. 

The world is changing, and USDA must change, too.  How will USDA adapt to this new world?  We need to enlist all minority communities to make sure that people know about USDA programs.  Under our "2501" outreach grant program, grants are provided for training and technical assistance to make sure our target customers know about and participate equally in USDA programs.  Most of these competitively awarded grants go to the "1890's" institutions (historically black land-grant universities), Hispanic-Serving Institutions, as well as community-based organizations.  This year, Tuskegee received a grant of over $276,000. 

We need to redefine our outreach efforts, think outside the box, and find new ways to help farmers, ranchers, and borrowers become full partners in USDA programs.  But it will take the joint energy of Latinos and African Americans to make sure that mistakes of the past are not repeated. 

We need to rethink and redouble our efforts with HBCU's (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) - and especially Tuskegee and the 1890's institutions, and with HSI's and Tribal colleges - especially the "1994" institutions.  I don't think we're doing enough, and I don't think that what we're doing, we're doing well enough.  We've got what I call "pocket" programs all over the place. 

What we need is the grand coalition I spoke of earlier, in the context of our overall efforts.  It's time to think differently.  It's time not only to think outside the box, but also to kick the box out of the way! 

Our partnerships with institutions of higher learning need to be coordinated and broadened in more creative ways. 

I'm proposing working together to achieve common goals.  I'm proposing managing the programs with a recognition of the common objectives.  I'm proposing eliminating the sense of "competition" among our various partners for our attention and partnership.  We're a big organization, and we can walk and chew gum at the same time.  We can focus on multiple objectives but manage those efforts with a coordinated theme and a minimum of duplication and confusion. 

I need your support and cooperation to strengthen programs and partnerships with minority institutions.  I need your creative ideas for new partnerships, new ways to attract African American and Hispanic - and other - summer interns, cooperative education students, and ultimately, USDA employees.   I need your ideas about how we can better reach out to underserved populations.  I want to negotiate more and bigger cooperative agreements and memoranda of understanding, to use the best minds in your institutions to achieve the goals that you and I have in common. 

One example is our ongoing discussions with the NAACP to forge a new memorandum of understanding whereby we will work with that organization in an unprecedented way, using their superb local networks to reach out to African American farmers and ranchers to help them qualify for and benefit from USDA programs. 

Secretary Veneman has charged me with following through on her commitment to equal opportunity for USDA employees, partners and customers.  

The Secretary's civil rights statement, issued this fall, sets the direction.  "I am firmly committed," she says, "to ensuring USDA's compliance with civil rights and equal opportunity for everyone".There is no principle more important".As public servants, we cannot be effective without being fair.  We cannot be responsive without being respectful.  We cannot deliver programs and services without being sensitive to the human issues that are so much a part of our work."  This is our passion and our vision. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that African Americans and Hispanics, who already share a passion for equality and fairness, will share a vision that involves working together to achieve our common dreams.  Yes, we must continue to dream.  

I dream of the day when American agriculture produces renewable energy for America.  

I dream of the day when American agriculture protects against the use of our delivery system for food as an instrument of mass destruction. 

I dream of the day when my African American/Hispanic grandchildren, Miquela, Santiago and Jamie, will not have to define their world by the color of their skin.  It is a good dream. 

Thank you for having me here today.

Category: History of America | Subcategory: Gallegos | Tags: Georgia , Florida , Alabama , New Mexico , Washington
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