The Minister of Minstrelsy
Though Peterson's stunts border on self-satire, there is a method to his madness. In his hunt for recognition, Peterson has modeled himself after his hero, Booker T. Washington, the turn-of-the-century author and entrepreneur dubbed "the Great Accommodator." Like Washington, who allied himself with conservative whites in a quest for corporate grants for his cash-strapped Tuskegee Institute, Peterson demonstrates loyalty to the most rigid elements of the white establishment in ways that seem calculated to advance his personal ventures and increase his public stature.
"Blacks see racism everywhere they look, even though by most accounts there is really very little racism left among whites--certainly not among those with much power and influence. The sad truth is that black racism is far more pervasive today than is white racism," Peterson wrote in his 2003 polemic Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America. For conservative Republicans frustrated with the steadfast refusal of minorities to abandon their grievances, Peterson's words are a source of comfort. For white nationalists determined to intimidate and marginalize aspirant ethnic minorities, Peterson could embolden their crusade. It's no wonder both factions have promoted him so aggressively.
The first time I became aware of Peterson was when I slipped into a February 2003 gathering of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), a local anti-immigrant organization designated a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Once the evening began, Peterson was introduced to the crowd by CCIR's director, Barbara Coe, a grandmotherly figure who might pass for a librarian were it not for her penchant for foaming-at-the-mouth references to Mexican immigrants as "savages." With an oversized sweater hanging from his portly frame, Peterson waved and flashed a forced grin as the crowd applauded politely. Later, Arizona border militia leader Chris Simcox stepped to the stage to spin ominous tales of Mexican immigrants spreading tuberculosis in America's public schools and Red Chinese troops spreading out across the US-Mexico border, poised for invasion.
I was reminded of Peterson during an interview I conducted this past September with Virginia Abernethy, a self-avowed "racial separationist" and editor of the journal of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization that evolved from the white Citizens' Councils formed in the 1950s South to fight integration. In an apparent effort to counter the commonly held notion that she is a racist, Abernethy informed me that she is friends with "a black minister in Los Angeles named Jesse Lee Peterson."
When I asked Peterson for his own views on immigrants, he explained, "There are illegals coming into this country, and they're bringing crime and drugs, all kinds of stuff. So there is a savage personality to what they're doing."
According to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Peterson's views on immigrants reflect his enlistment by a web of think tanks and foundations campaigning to make anti-immigrant politics mainstream. In February 2002, Beirich says, Peterson was invited by the anti-immigrant organization Numbers USA to a lobbying session with Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado in Washington's Cannon House Office Building. There, Peterson and twenty-six other right-wing activists were told by Numbers USA director Roy Beck that for their campaign to succeed, it "needs to look like a grassroots effort."