The Minister of Minstrelsy
At the heart of the effort to cultivate an extremist incarnation of black Republicanism is the National Center for Public Policy Research, a think tank that, like Heritage, is funded in large part by Bradley and Scaife. Founded in the early 1980s to provide PR for the Reagan Administration's policy supporting Central American death squads, NCPPR shifted its focus to domestic politics during an explosion of racial tumult in post-cold war America.
In 1992, while race rioting engulfed Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King beating, civil rights leaders and black Democratic politicians took to the airwaves to criticize the draconian policies of the Los Angeles police department as the riot's root cause. In the absence of a coordinated right-wing response, NCPPR enlisted a coterie of black conservatives, including Peterson, to denounce the rioters as wanton criminals while hailing the LAPD's ham-handed response. Out of the campaign grew Project 21, a group providing cable news programs with a reliable stable of black talking heads willing and able to say what white conservatives can't.
More than a decade after its formation, however, Project 21 is still hamstrung by its dearth of publicly recognized members. Besides the group's most well-known spokesman, Peterson, Project 21's roster includes the eminent Murdock Gibbs, described in his bio as a "Dallas-based entertainer, speaker and freelance writer." Then there's Kevin Martin, whose career as "an environmental contractor in Maryland" must have made his transition to punditry a no-brainer. (Martin showcased his political sophistication during a July 13, 2004, appearance on the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes in which he compared the NAACP to the Ku Klux Klan.) And finally, Project 21 boasts the seasoned insider Eddie Huff, an insurance agent from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
NCPPR's executive director, David Almasi, coordinates Project 21's strategy, churns out its press releases and even provides its spokespeople with talking points before they appear on air. But as Project 21's only white associate, he tries to keep behind the curtain while his cadres bash everyone from black basketball players to civil rights veterans. Almasi's cover was blown in July 2004, when he decided to fill in for a Project 21 spokesman who had gotten a flat tire on his way to an appearance on C-SPAN. As Joshua Holland reported in the Internet magazine The Gadflyer, while introducing Almasi, the show's bemused host turned to him and stuttered, "Um...Project 21...a program for conservative African Americans...you're not African American."
"I'm an employee of Project 21, my bosses are the members of Project 21, the volunteers.... I take my marching orders from them, not from anybody else," Almasi blurted.
Despite Almasi's bungle, Project 21 remains a crucial gear in the right's propaganda factory. Most recently, the group dutifully attempted to stifle Democratic opposition to Condoleezza Rice's nomination as Secretary of State. On November 19, two days after Rush Limbaugh went on air to condemn a series of political cartoons mocking Rice, including a Doonesbury strip depicting Bush calling her "brown sugar," Almasi sent out a press release blaring, "President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state has resulted in harsh liberal criticism that members of the black leadership network Project 21 consider racist."
Like clockwork, the right cranked up its Mighty Wurlitzer. While Peterson took to Hannity & Colmes to blast Democratic critics of Rice like Barbara Boxer and John Kerry as sworn "enemies to black people," Talon News's now-infamous former White House correspondent, Jeff Gannon, lifted a quote verbatim from Almasi's press release: "The recent racist attacks and mimicry of Condoleezza Rice are infuriating and despicable." Meanwhile, Project 21 member LaShawn Barber distilled news of the mock controversy on her blog, LaShawn Barber's Corner. With Rice under fire from Democrats for hyping bogus intelligence to build the case for invading Iraq, Project 21 managed to shift the discussion from the content of her character to the color of her skin.
Without well-heeled Republican operatives like Almasi behind them, Peterson and the rest of Project 21's cadres would probably be at home screaming at the TV. But instead, they're on TV, screaming at civil rights leaders who have spent their lifetimes representing millions of constituents. As Stephen Carter wrote in his 1991 memoir Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, "When the black folks get out of hand...many white folks think that it is nice to have another black person to shut them down."