The Pigford Con Game: So Many Victims

As I was transcribing the undercover audio we have of Tom Burrell, President of the Black Farmers Agricultural Association, Inc. speaking to an all-black audience in Monroe Louisiana this past January , something suddenly jumped out at me. I knew that Burrell was using a number of persuasive techniques such as peer pressure and stirring up feelings of racial victimization but his reason for doing so had danced around the edge of my consciousness.

Then I realized what Burrell is doing is absolutely classic confidence game behavior. Last year, I read Eric Garcia’s excellent con game novel Matchstick Men and of course I’ve seen classic 1970s con man movies like The Sting and Paper Moon. One major trick that conmen use is to get their victim – the mark — to become their "partner" in some sort of borderline unethical or illegal activity. "Hey, that guy dropped his wallet – what do you say you and I split the money, pal?” This ensures that once the victim has been fleeced, that they’re very unlikely to tell the authorities or anyone else what happened.

One way to listen to this audio is to think about the taxpayers who are being ripped off by people filing fraudulent claims that earn them a $50,000 check. That’s one of the bad things about Pigford and it obviously has affected taxpayers, both black and white.

But there’s another way to hear the audio, as well — everyone who Burrell is trying to convince and cajole into committing fraud is also a victim of Burrell’s game. His goal is to get as many people to give him $100 a year as he can and when I interviewed him, Burrell told me that the BFAA Inc. has nearly 10,000 members. Do the math and you’ll see that he is playing a very profitable game, indeed.

The first video gives a few examples of con game techniques that Tom Burrell uses on the crowd.

The second video is an extended section that shows exactly how Burrell takes people who are giving honest answers to the Pigford claim forms and uses mocking peer pressure to make them feel foolish for telling the truth. Burrell has been practicing his pitch for a decade. He’s entertaining and he’s good at it. His victims are black, mostly poor and seem to be mostly women. The fact that black political leaders and black media outlets have allowed him (and others) to get away with it is beyond shameful.

What is it going to take to get politicians like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa to listen to what Burrell is doing? Any time fraud is brought up, Pigford defenders like Grassley and (the man Grassley suggest the USDA work with) "Dr." John Boyd trot out the talking point that there are fraud provisions in place. The so-called fraud provisions in Pigford II do absolutely nothing to stop the sort of fraud you just heard. Nothing.

Morality, Race & Pigford

I spend a good deal of time discussing the specifics of the Pigford case but I’d like to step back for a moment and discuss the moral and spiritual aspects of the case.

When I first met Andrew Breitbart, one of the things that struck me in our initial conversations was that he was deeply, viscerally antiracist. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the story that liberals are constantly pushing where Breitbart is called a race baiter, apologist for racists and a racist himself. One reason that he gets painted this way is that he’s taken the risk that few have in today’s overheated knee-jerk political climate — he actually talks about the subject of race, and specifically the strange situation that African-Americans find themselves in the modern American political landscape,

I spent three months recently on the road in the South and doing interviews about the Pigford case. Almost all of the interviews were with black Americans who have an involvement with the case. I spoke to attorneys, farmers, activists and politicians with a variety of viewpoints. During this trip, I was struck time and again with just how poisonous our political climate has turned our views of race.

And if there’s one aspect of Pigford I consider the most important, it’s how this one case has played a significant role in hurting the state of race relations. When things stagnate, dangers soon follow. Just as stagnant water brings insects and disease, our stagnant politics of race has brought genuine hardships to our entire nation.

I hope that by exposing the mechanics of how the politics of race is played on Pigford, it will help people move closer to the moral ideal of judging men not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I realized before jumping into the Pigford investigation that it was a Gordian knot and I prayed that I would be able to rise to the challenge of explaining it in a way that healed racial division, not exacerbated it.

What I did not know when I started on the road was the extent to which "liberal" groups like Media Matters for America would fight to defend Pigford even when it was clear that the injustices in Pigford were often most unfair to the black community. I naïvely assumed that people on the left would see the unfairness being heaped upon black folks in this case and at least give the facts a fair hearing. Instead, I’ve seen people on left time and again bend over backwards to ignore the truth in Pigford, knowing full well that black farmers are being harmed.

Whenever I debate Pigford with people on the left, I always say “take my word for it”. I’ve offered time and again — talk to the farmers. I’ve offered to give the farmer’s phone numbers to people who attacked the Pigford investigation, because the farmer’s stories are passionate and detailed.

Not once – not one single time I’m aware of — has any critic of the Pigford investigation taken me up on this and spoken to the farmers.

Here’s what eats at me; I can walk away from the Pigford story. At the end of the day, it’s a project for me. But for these farmers, it’s their life. When Pigford defenders like Eric Boehlert and Media Matters, James Rucker and Color of Change, Anderson Cooper, and Ta-Nehisi Coates attack (or worse, ignore) the video interviews with these farmers, it’s really not me or Andrew Breitbart who they are hurting or demeaning – it’s those men who have been trying to bring the truth about Pigford to light for over a decade.

The Pigford story has had a much wider effect because it bolsters the feelings of both black people and white people that our political system is rigged against them. White folks can look askance a system where thousands of black people committed perjury and collected $50,000 checks. Black folks can shake their heads that nothing was done to correct the injustice of the USDA and that white folks like attorney Al Pires made millions. Everybody, black and white, comes away feeling that the dice have been loaded by the other side.

And this is the real moral disaster of Pigford. Those racial tensions that have been stirred up by petty hucksters like "Dr." John Boyd and Thomas Burrell are just a puppet show — a distraction so that politicians from Sanford Bishop to Chuck Grassley to Tom Vilasck to Barack Obama can grease the wheels of the political machine.

At root, Pigford is a story about fraud but it’s a fraud that goes far beyond financial concerns. It’s about the fraud that keeps us separate. It’s about the fraud that is intentionally perpetuated by profiteers and politicians to keep us from recognizing that we must remain vigilant, honest and brave to move beyond the stagnant waters of the entitlement mentality that has only served to keep our brothers and sisters down.

OBEY: My Art Contribution To The Royal Wedding

It is an issue that every bride marrying in the Church of England must consider: whether her vows to love and honour her new husband should also include a promise to “obey” him.

And with the royal wedding less than a week away, there is growing speculation that Kate Middleton will drop what is increasingly seen as an anachronism from her own vows.

So I made this tribute to Shepard Faiirey.


You’re welcome!