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Our Commitment to Civil Rights

USDA Official Seal

DATE:            March 29, 2021

TO:                  All USDA Employees

FROM:            Thomas J. Vilsack
                        Secretary of Agriculture

SUBJECT:      Our Commitment to Civil Rights

Since the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, our nation has made great strides to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or national origin.  Encouraged by the progress our country has achieved since this landmark law, we also recognize that we must continue to do more to ensure Civil Rights for all Americans. In one of his earliest executive orders, President Biden affirmed that “equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy” and “advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.” At USDA, we are recommitting ourselves to the values of equity, inclusion and equal opportunity for each other and those we serve.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about the things that matter.” I want to be very clear about my steadfast commitment toward advancing racial justice and equity and rooting out systemic racism by strengthening civil rights programs and activities. Last week, I testified before the House Committee on Agriculture. In my statement entered into the record, I referenced the horrific shootings in Atlanta two weeks ago directed at Asian Americans. Those acts of violence, I wrote, “remind us that hatred and bigotry toward non-white Americans and gender-based violence are real, are threats, and must end.” I stand in solidarity with our Asian American colleagues, family members, friends, and community members.

Ending Discrimination in Any Form at USDA

Hate crimes reached near-record levels last year in the United States, demonstrating that our work to ensure civil rights and equal treatment is far, far from over. That’s why it’s important that we are united in calling out and ending discrimination in any form. There is no place for it in our great nation, and certainly no place for it here at USDA. We must be better than we’ve been in the past, which is why we must acknowledge this Department’s terrible history of specific acts of discrimination directed at people of color and other marginalized groups. Together we must build a different USDA, one that is committed to equality and justice, celebrates diversity, and is radically inclusive of all employees and all customers.

We must also acknowledge USDA’s history of systemic discrimination via policies and programs designed to benefit those with access, education, assets, privilege rather than for those without. During the hearing last week focused on USDA’s discriminatory history toward Black farmers, I gave Chairman David Scott “a single and solemn commitment from me and from the team at USDA, that we will over the next four years do everything we can to root out whatever systemic racism and barriers may exist at the Department of Agriculture directed at Black farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and people who live in persistently poor areas in rural America.” I want us all committed to one common purpose: To be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans. We cannot truly be the People’s Department as President Lincoln intended unless we truly serve all people. We will be a USDA that is committed to ensuring equity across the Department, removing barriers to access, and building a workforce more representative of America.

Our Civil Rights Staff

We could not do this important work without the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) and your respective agency Civil Rights Offices, which provide leadership and direction for the fair and equitable treatment of all USDA customers and employees while ensuring the delivery of quality programs and enforcement of civil rights. OASCR ensures compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies for USDA customers and employees regardless of race, color, national origin, sex (including gender identity and expression), religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital or familial status, political beliefs, parental status, protected genetic information, or because all or part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program.

In our short time in office, we have worked closely with our OASCR team on a number of important efforts. USDA has launched the first-ever USDA Racial Justice and Equity Working Group that is charged with implementing the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government with representatives from across our Department. Our Senior Advisor for Racial Equity in the Office of the Secretary will partner and work closely with our OASCR team and other leaders to advance our collective equity efforts in the months and years to come. Whether you are a food safety inspector, firefighter, loan officer, agronomist or lawyer, this work will involve you—and everyone who works at USDA.

This Will Take All of Us

We cannot do this important work without you. Whether you are a food safety inspector, fire fighter, loan officer, agronomist or lawyer, this involves you and everyone who works at USDA to make it a more inclusive institution every day.  To that end, I have instructed my leadership team to devise a process for collecting, reviewing, and acting on suggestions from you—USDA staff—on how we can create a more diverse and equitable USDA. Look out for more information on how to share your suggestions and engage in the weeks ahead.

As Secretary, I am challenging all of us to create an inclusive and equitable work environment that embraces our differences, and that promotes equal opportunity for all. These civil rights principles are employees’ rights by law and should be reflected in all we do. As an employee, if you believe you have been subjected to discrimination, you must contact a USDA EEO Counselor within 45 days of the date of the alleged discriminatory act, event, or in the case of a personnel action. EEO Counselors are part of your agency Civil Rights Office and contact information can be found on the OASCR web-page.

As USDA employees, you represent an America committed to working for the common good and treating everyone with dignity and respect. Together, we will promote an ethical, equitable and inclusive culture that preserves the faith and trust of the American people in public service. I am confident you will do your part and I pledge to do mine as your Secretary.

Thank you,

Secretary Vilsack