The Minister of Minstrelsy
In late February, inside a sterile conference hall at Washington's premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, a crowd of no more than seventy took off their snow-flecked coats and settled in for an afternoon with a group of speakers billed as "The New Black Vanguard." Perched on a platform above the audience, the speakers promptly launched a barrage of attacks on the civil rights establishment and "the entertainment-industrial complex." At first the audience seemed disengaged, even a bit overwhelmed by the cacophony of blustery rhetoric. Then the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson piped up. "W.E.B. Du Bois was a communist, socialist pig," Peterson crowed. A few of his fellow panelists blanched at his overheated language. But once the shock subsided, laughter rippled through the previously mute crowd, followed by vigorous applause.
It was vintage Peterson. Throughout his fifteen-year career as a right-wing evangelical minister, Peterson has never shied from bombastic assaults on targets ranging from civil rights leaders to liberal Democrats to undocumented immigrants. But while Peterson's strident style may be unique, with his extremist politics he is merely playing the role of front man for a murky, well-funded network of white nationalist activists and right-wing Beltway operatives. By deploying Peterson to gatherings like the Heritage event and into the media, this coterie of conservatives have been able to apply a bold veneer of blackness over the brand of bigotry they find increasingly inconvenient to espouse on their own. Peterson has no professional or political accomplishments to speak of, beyond directing a small inner-city aid ministry and hosting a radio show syndicated on a handful of AM stations across the country. To his sponsors, though, that's irrelevant; it is his immunity from charges of racism that matters.
A former welfare recipient and follower of Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, Peterson says he experienced a political awakening fifteen years ago, when he simultaneously discovered Jesus and Ronald Reagan. "I was born a Democrat but I had no values; it was anything goes, whatever you want to do, and that came from the black leadership," Peterson told me. "But I finally started to examine it for myself and I realized the Democratic platform was an anti-God, anti-values, anti-American platform."
It was then that Peterson formed BOND, or Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, a faith-based nonprofit he now runs out of a ramshackle storefront in mid-city Los Angeles. Through BOND's counseling service and its boys' home, Peterson says, he teaches inner-city youth "that they're Americans, not African-Americans, and that they should start giving back to their country instead of complaining." But with a tiny staff and an annual budget just above $200,000--more than one-fourth of which it spent on rent in 2001, according to Guidestar.org, a group that tracks nonprofits--it's unclear how BOND could bring more than a handful of boyz in the hood to heel.
BOND's primary function seems to be to serve as a platform for Peterson's various publicity stunts. His flagship media event was "National Repudiation of Jesse Jackson Day," timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. If you're wondering why you never heard of this grassroots black backlash against America's most well-known living civil rights leader, you might not be as out of touch as you think: In its five-year life span (it was discontinued last year), Jesse Jackson's "repudiation" was not national (it was limited to a street corner outside Jackson's LA office), and it consisted almost exclusively of Peterson's friends, BOND employees, boys' home residents and small-fry demagogues like anti-immigrant border vigilante Glenn Spencer, who joined the crowd in 2004. Despite a lack of public interest, Peterson claimed to have gotten under Jackson's skin. On Sean Hannity's radio show in 2001, Peterson stated, "Sean, if anything happens to me I want you to make sure you turn this tape over to the authorities and have them look into Jesse Jackson's organization or anybody that's connected with him." (Only recently did Hannity admit that he "probably should have" disclosed his membership on BOND's board.) The day after Peterson's outburst, a NewsMax.com headline announced, "Civil Rights Leader Fears for Life After Jesse Jackson Confrontation." Peterson insists his campaign was successful, boasting in a recent Washington appearance that he "soundly repudiated" Jackson before moving on to his new targets: the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.
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."
Immigrant-basher is only one of the many hats Peterson wears. And thus, "illegals" aren't the only savages he sees wreaking havoc across America. "What else can you call black-on-black crime? Anytime you kill an innocent child, it is savagery," he told me. During a February 26 appearance on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, he was only slightly less vitriolic: "Most black men are very weak and insecure." (The unmarried Peterson's views on black women are bluntly summarized by the title of Scam's thirteenth chapter, "Why Black Women Are So Mean.")
Rhetoric like this may not win any black Democrats over to the GOP, but it serves an important purpose for the right. "Jesse Lee Peterson gives the racists in the Republican Party deniability. He let's them say, 'What I'm saying can't be racism because black people are saying it,'" George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and the Chicago Tribune's former New York bureau chief, told me.
Curry, who has been a guest on Peterson's radio show, likens Peterson to Armstrong Williams, the disgraced black conservative radio host who admitted to having accepted taxpayer-funded bribes from the White House to promote its policies. "The bottom line with people like Peterson and Armstrong Williams is, if these people were not conservative, nobody would have ever heard of them," Curry said. "They're undistinguished, so they go to the short line, where there's plenty of payoff."
Indeed, though Peterson has no constituency to speak of, Washington's conservative elite have rolled out a welcome mat for him. He has become a fixture at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative influentials often referred to as "the unofficial Republican convention." According to People for the American Way, during the 2002 conference Peterson used his speaking slot to declare the civil rights movement "the worst thing that could have happened to the black community." This year, when Peterson returned, he was given the honor of introducing Zell Miller, who presented the "Courage Under Fire Award" to the anti-John Kerry front Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Just a week later Peterson was down the street, moderating the Heritage event, which was titled "Responding to the Call: The New Black Vanguard Conference." Heritage is bankrolled largely by reclusive oil baron Richard Mellon Scaife and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a group that made hefty grants in the early 1990s for studies intended to prove the genetic inferiority of blacks and other ethnic minorities. Besides Peterson, the few who actually responded to Heritage's call included Roy Innis, a longtime supporter of Holocaust-denier Lyndon LaRouche and an apologist for the genocidal African dictator Idi Amin; and Gloria Jackson, whose sole distinction is being Booker T. Washington's great-granddaughter. "I think the best times for black people were during those periods of darkness," Jackson said, harking back fondly to the pre-civil rights era.
Given their apparent nostalgia for the Jim Crow South, the "New Vanguard" of black conservatives represents a novel trend in American politics. There have always been black Republicans, but never before have they been able to reach an anti-civil rights consensus. Richard Nixon's Assistant Secretary of Labor, Art Fletcher, and William Coleman, who was Secretary of Transportation for Gerald Ford, ascended through party ranks despite, and possibly because of, their vocal support for civil rights. Yet by 1996, when delegates at the Republican National Convention heckled Colin Powell for praising affirmative action, it was clear the GOP's internal dynamics had changed.
"The Republican Party has chased out its moderate voices, both black and white, and now they're captive to the far right wing," explained Curry. "So today the litmus test [for black conservatives] is, you must be against affirmative action or the Republicans will have no use for you."
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."