Flickr / USDA
If confirmed on Wednesday, Naomi Earp will oversee civil rights enforcement at a department plagued by allegations of widespread, sometimes criminal, discrimination and misconduct.

Issues Justice Opinion Policy Systems

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Naomi Earp, President Trump’s nominee to serve as the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) assistant secretary of civil rights. While Earp is an attorney with more than two decades of experience in federal government, her record has been marred by accusations of racial discrimination, especially against black employees (Earp herself is black). If confirmed, she will head an office with a reputation for discrimination that’s extreme even for a department widely known to black farmers and employees as “The Last Plantation.”

Soon after graduating from law school in 1982, Earp became an advisor to Clarence Thomas, who served as the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under then-President Ronald Reagan. The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, but Thomas, who was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, constantly clashed with civil rights activists while at the EEOC. At one point, Thomas told a reporter for The Washington Post that all advocates ever did was “bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.”

Naomi Earp, Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) assistant secretary of civil rights, has a history of allegations of discrimination against black employees. Credit: Library of Congress, November 2018Library of Congress

An NAACP task force found that Earp cost the government nearly half-a-million dollars in settlements and compensatory damages as a result of discrimination complaints filed against her and employees under her direct supervision

Although not as outspoken as Thomas, Earp quickly developed a similarly combative reputation among civil rights advocates. In 1987, Earp left the EEOC to supervise civil rights enforcement at USDA. According to a subsequent investigation conducted by the House Committee on Government Operations, as well as numerous reports and committee hearings, however, she merely presided over an office designed to give the appearance that USDA was addressing discrimination—as required by federal law—without actually doing so. Discrimination against minority farmers and employees continued unabated during her tenure at USDA.

According to a 2002 NAACP report, Earp left USDA after two years due to “tension and confusion” with her staff and “personal problems” with her supervisors—a pattern that would follow her to her job as the civil rights office chief at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a position she maintained from 1994 until 2000. A year before she left NIH, four civil rights employees at NIH sent a letter to the director of the agency protesting Earp’s “abusive, oppressive, and demoralizing management style” and contending that she held “blacks in less esteem than whites.”

Despite her controversy-plagued career, then-President George W. Bush nominated Earp to serve as vice chair of the EEOC in 2001. Bush’s previous appointees to the EEOC had been confirmed without any opposition, but in a rare move, the NAACP Board of Directors voted unanimously to fight Earp’s nomination based on her “terrible track record of opposition to NAACP policies, goals, and objectives.”

NAACP’s federal sector task force also released a blistering report criticizing Earp’s civil rights record. While the NAACP alleged that offices under Earp’s management had been “places of discontent, low morale and high senior staff turnover” throughout her career, the report focused on her time at NIH. The report accused Earp of dismantling federal civil rights programs and noted that her office had made no findings of discrimination during her time at the agency. The NAACP concluded that the lack of any discrimination findings “raises some very serious questions as to the effectiveness of the [civil rights] program at NIH.”

The NAACP task force found that Earp cost the government nearly half-a-million dollars in settlements and compensatory damages as a result of discrimination complaints filed against her and employees under her direct supervision.

If confirmed, Earp will oversee civil rights enforcement at a department plagued by allegations of widespread, sometimes criminal, discrimination and misconduct.

Senate Democrats successfully blocked Earp’s nomination to the EEOC in 2001 in response to the NAACP’s concerns, but Bush appointed her vice chair in 2003 after the Democrats lost control of the Senate. She later chaired the EEOC from 2006 to 2009.

Tanya Ward Jordan was serving on the NAACP task force when Earp was nominated to the commission in 2001. She says that the former EEOC chair has done little to improve her record since then.

“[We] made the EEOC keenly aware of [the department of] agriculture’s toxic workplace culture and its complaint management problems. Still, the problems the NAACP raised remained under Earp’s watch.”

If confirmed, Earp would oversee civil rights enforcement at a department plagued by allegations of widespread, sometimes criminal, discrimination and misconduct.

One of the country’s largest public employers, USDA has a reputation as a hostile workplace for minorities and women, as documented in numerous reports, media accounts, and hearings. In March of 2018, PBS Newshour revealed how officials in the U.S. Forest Service, an agency housed within USDA, have systematically retaliated against women who have filed sexual harassment complaints, including against women who said they were raped by their colleagues. While the ensuing media storm led to the resignation of the head of the Forest Service, advocates say that little has changed at either the Forest Service or USDA.

“It seems as if the administration is recycling the same people to stand guard over the same problems.”

Three reports from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Government Accountability Office, (GAO), issued in 2008 and 2009, established that the civil rights office did not process complaints in a timely manner, then released incomplete records on the number and disposition of complaints. USDA’s deception was so brazen, a congressman noted at a 2008 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that management had expelled federal GAO inspectors from department buildings as they tried to conduct interviews for their report.

In 2015 and again in 2017, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative body, sent letters—first to then-President Barack Obama and then to President Trump—detailing whistleblower complaints concerning the employment discrimination process at USDA. In 2015, the federal investigators found that the office of civil rights had been “seriously mismanaged” and had “compromised the civil rights of USDA employees.” In 2017, they declared that the civil rights office continued to fail to process complaints in a timely manner or hold senior staff accountable.

“I don’t see anything positive coming out of USDA,” says Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

“It’s more of the same,” says Ward Jordan, president of The Coalition of Change, an organization dedicated to fighting discrimination in the federal government. “It seems as if the administration is recycling the same people to stand guard over the same problems.”

Lucas shares similar concerns about Earp’s record. “If [Secretary of Agriculture Sonny] Perdue hasn’t made any positive changes at USDA, how can we expect Naomi Earp to make positive changes?”

“Those people that are guilty of discrimination at USDA are not being held accountable,” Lucas says. “That’s it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed said Tanya Ward Jordan was serving on the NAACP task force when Earp was nominated to the commission in 2002. That is incorrect. The year was 2001. We regret the error.

Nathan Rosenberg

Nathan Rosenberg is a lawyer and researcher based in Iowa City, Iowa, whose work focuses on inequality, food systems, and the environment. He is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Arkansas School of Law, where he was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Graduate Program in Agricultural & Food Law. Nathan has also taught at New York University and worked as a consulting attorney for Earthjustice, a legal fellow for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and as director of the Delta Directions Consortium.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get a weekly dish of features, commentary and insight from the food movement’s front lines.