Jesse Lee Peterson versus the “black experience.”
[This article is reprinted from City Journal.]
In December 2001, the Toyota Motor Corporation held a public meeting at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with racial activist Jesse Jackson. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss Toyota’s “Twenty-First Century Diversity Strategy,” a ten-year program worth some $7.8 billion in contracts for minority-owned businesses. At even a casual glance, the program seemed a capitulation to Jackson, who had threatened to call for a black boycott of the carmaker over some ads that he deemed racist. Toyota’s denials that it had given in to racial extortion rang unconvincing.
Also in attendance that day was another black minister named Jesse—the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson is the staunchly conservative head of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, or BOND, which is dedicated to “rebuilding the family by rebuilding the man”—educating males, mostly black males, about personal strength and responsibility. Peterson is also Jackson’s sworn nemesis and calls him, among other things, a “racist demagogue” and a “problem profiteer.” For two years prior to the Toyota meeting, he’d been holding rallies declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a “National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson.” So when it came time for the Q&A, Peterson asked Toyota’s reps if BOND could apply for its grants without joining Jackson’s Trade Bureau at an entry fee of up to $2,500.
“All hell broke loose in the room,” Peterson writes in his book Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America. “Several blacks got up and started screaming obscenities at me.” Jesse Jackson denounced “some parasites who want to pick up apples from trees they didn’t shake.” When Peterson tried to leave the meeting, he claims that Jesse’s son Jonathan confronted him and shoved him in the chest, while others surrounded him, shouting obscenities.
Peterson sued, claiming that Jesse Jackson threatened him and that Jonathan assaulted him. The jury split 6–6 on the assault charge, and it was settled out of court. A lengthy 6–6 split on the other charges ended when, according to the Los Angeles Times, three jurors, still professing to believe Peterson, surrendered to the argument that he hadn’t proved his claims. Though Jesse Jackson had to admit under oath that his Trade Bureau played a role in distributing the Toyota grants—and though he acknowledged the “parasites” remark—he and his son walked away largely unscathed.
I couldn’t help but think of Jesse Jackson when I visited Peterson at BOND recently. I couldn’t help but think of Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, with its monumental marble headquarters in Chicago and branches in major cities around the country. BOND’s offices, by contrast, are in a shabby storefront sitting amid furniture stores, gas stations, and billboards in a flat and dispiriting stretch of L.A.’s Mid-City West section. Whereas Rainbow/PUSH reportedly receives double-digit millions in corporate grants and sponsorships, BOND gets by on about half a million dollars a year in mostly private donations (though some money comes in from Toyota since the 2001 brouhaha). Its Home for Boys, a gabled house in a pleasantly leafy residential neighborhood nearby, can hold eight residents at a time, with some sharing rooms. That, along with BOND’s After-School Character Building Program, which takes on ten to 12 kids for six to nine weeks, represents an effort no larger than, say, a church Sunday school: about 70 boys have graduated from both programs so far. BOND chapters begun in Flint and Lansing, Michigan, have had to close down for lack of funds.
But if BOND is austere, it nonetheless provides Peterson with a platform from which to speak his indomitable piece. The building includes a rudimentary chapel—a cross, a podium, maybe 30 office chairs—where he preaches to a small congregation every Sunday (the sermons are later posted on his website and YouTube). There’s also an admirably equipped studio from which he puts on a radio and Internet call-in show five mornings a week. As BOND’s president and CEO, he makes regular TV appearances with Fox News stalwarts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (who serves on BOND’s advisory board). He also writes a no-holds-barred column on the popular conservative Christian website WorldNetDaily, and he makes occasionally raucous speaking appearances, including a recent debate at Yale University in which he denounced affirmative action, to predictable hisses from the Yale Political Union.
Still, the contrast between Jesse Jackson’s wealth and fame and Jesse Lee Peterson’s relatively modest circumstances seems an object lesson in the fate of competing narratives and identities. The great social thinker Shelby Steele has written that to “be black” in America requires the wearing of a mask. Either you are a “challenger,” like Jackson, who essentially tells whites: “I judge you racist until you do something—such as giving me money—to prove otherwise.” Or you are a “bargainer,” like Barack Obama, who says, “I will not use racism against you, if you will not use race against me.”
But Jesse Lee Peterson will not “be black” in that sense at all. “The ‘Black Experience’ is a myth used to control people,” he has written. His approach to the problems facing America’s entrenched black underclass is profoundly personal. And his comparatively marginal place in the culture raises the possibility that, for a public black in America, to be a man only is to be a man alone.
Most black Americans are suffering not because of racism but the lack of moral character,” Peterson tells me. We are sitting in his office in BOND’s cramped second story. It’s a threadbare space: cheap desk, cheap chairs, some books on cheap shelves, some photos of friends and BOND graduates hanging on the off-white walls or propped against them. “About 50 years ago, the government came in under Lyndon B. Johnson, and it said to black people, ‘We’re gonna take care of you. You can’t make it because of racism. But you can’t have a father in the home, you can’t have a man in your home.’ ” He’s alluding to welfare systems that subsidized single mothers and thus discouraged marriage. “And many black people decided to go with that, and they took the fathers out, and the government became the daddy of the family. And the so-called civil rights leaders became the head of the people . . . and they have managed to brainwash, dumb down, and demoralize the people for their own personal gain.”
Like many outspoken conservatives, Peterson is only noticed by the mainstream media when he makes statements that are, I suspect, purposely calibrated to shock and annoy them: “Thank God for slavery” (because it brought blacks out of Africa to America) and “Barack Obama hates white people.” Like many black conservatives, he is subject to continual name-calling and racial slurs. One man even pulled a gun on him when he recognized him in a restaurant, Peterson says, and others have threatened violence against the radio stations that run his show. But in appearance and behavior, at least, he doesn’t fit the firebrand mold. He’s a slender man of average height with a relaxed, quiet aspect. A cleft palate, not repaired until he was in his teens, left him with a slight speech impediment, and he has developed a careful manner of speaking, not ferocious at all, not even in the pulpit. He is self-effacing and humorous and notes his own lapses in grammar and eloquence by telling me simply and without apology, “I didn’t get a great education.” He is scrupulously direct and thorough when answering questions, and his worldview is strikingly coherent and precise.
Like Steele—who provides both a blurb and a frontispiece quotation for Peterson’s autobiography, From Rage to Responsibility—Peterson decries the transformation of the civil rights movement from a principled appeal to the American creed to a politicized shakedown of guilt-ridden whites. He condemns the government subsidies of single motherhood that have helped set loose a plague of black illegitimacy and its attendant plagues of generational poverty and crime. (See “Heralds of a Brighter Black Future,” Spring 2005.) And he bemoans the black culture of dependency on government support that even welfare workers privately call “welfare psychosis.”
But Peterson is no metropolitan academic. Despite his quiet demeanor and delivery, his message is charged with that old-time religion. Where Steele views the last 40 years of civil rights activism as a complex and poisonous blend of white guilt, black opportunism, and government incompetence and corruption, Peterson sees an intentional power grab by an anti-American Left, a self-interested attempt to destroy the nation by destroying manhood and marriage, part of the ongoing and eternal struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. “You cannot control a moral people,” he tells me. “You have to keep them immoral in order to control them.”
When Peterson starts talking, the words I don’t agree with everything he says, but . . . leap screaming into your mind. Even conservative commentator Dennis Prager, who serves on BOND’s advisory board and calls Peterson “one of the handful of great men anyone is privileged to meet in a lifetime,” makes a similar disclaimer in his foreword to the autobiography. It’s a gesture of mental self-defense, I think, against a preacher who seems very peacefully and yet relentlessly to say what has become, in the current American narratives of race and gender, virtually unsayable.
Take Peterson’s vision of restoring the lost black family, which is unflinchingly religious and traditional. “There is a spiritual order to life that was ordained by God,” he tells me. “And that order is God in Christ, Christ in man, man over woman, woman over children. And it’s not an ego trip, it’s just a spiritual order, that men are subject to Christ and women are subject to men.”
At this point on the interview tape, you can hear me start to stammer hilariously. I don’t agree with everything he says, but. . . . And yet, at the same time I’m stammering, several thoughts crowd in on me. First, Peterson’s traditionalism is only an echo of Paul’s advice to married couples in Ephesians, not to mention John Milton’s deathless description of Adam and Eve: “He for God only; she for God in him.” Second, his words are spoken in answer to a community where I’ve repeatedly heard black women describe black men as “weak” and black men describe black women as “mean.” Third (and I can’t wait to drop this comment at my wife’s next dinner party), the happiest middle-class white families I know are still fashioned on some version of Peterson’s principle—the husband as head of the household—as long as that leadership is understood, as Peterson understands it, to be subject to an overarching moral order of love, gentleness, and grace.
“What men don’t understand is that they represent God in the family, in the home, and . . . they’re supposed to love what’s right more than anything else,” Peterson tells me. “And when they love that, then God dwells in them and works through them to guide them in the right way so that they can guide their families.”
Peterson’s program for restoring this paradigm is fashioned from his personal experience—almost, in fact, a universalization of his autobiography. Born in 1949 in the sleepy little town of Comer Hill, Alabama, he grew up on the former plantation where his great-grandparents had labored as slaves. His father would not acknowledge him, and his mother had moved north to start a family with another man. Peterson was raised by his grandmother and frequently disciplined by his grandfather, who managed the old farm for its white owners. But despite the fact that his great-grandfather had been murdered by a white mob, and despite the Jim Crow world in which they lived, “Not once did I hear them blame white folks or say that it was because we were black,” he tells me. “They understood that it was wrong, but they understood that it was a moral issue, it was a spiritual issue. And so they taught us not to hate.”
It was not racism that troubled the young Peterson as much as what he calls a “hunger for father.” He writes in his autobiography: “I used to yearn, to literally ache in my gut, for him to come into my life and make himself known to me, and claim me as his son.” Peterson did come to know his father in his early teens and drew deep satisfaction from occasional visits to him in East Chicago, Indiana, where he had a family and owned a laundry business. At 16, Peterson moved in with his mother and stepfather in the nearby city of Gary and there came to learn of her deep resentment of the man who denied impregnating her. “Her anger at him kept her from loving me,” Peterson writes.
On graduating high school, Peterson moved to Los Angeles and was soon adrift in the sixties counterculture. After a series of odd jobs, he learned how to play the welfare system. Merely by claiming to be a drug addict, he was able to cadge $300 a month in government handouts, plus rent and food stamps. He stopped working altogether, turned to full-time drug use and sex, and “descended into a pit of irresponsibility and laziness. It nearly destroyed me.” Peterson and his friends in South Central L.A. would frequently gather around the radio to listen to Louis Farrakhan. The fiery Nation of Islam preacher “made me feel good to be black” and “caused me to hate the white people around me.” Through most of his thirties, Peterson writes, “I was a sullen, furious, and racist black man.”
It was another radio preacher who changed Peterson’s direction: Roy Masters, a British convert from Judaism, who advocated praying to God for self-knowledge and listening quietly for God’s response. Such prayers led Peterson to confront his anger, not against whites, but against his own parents, so that he came to understand himself outside the context of his skin color. He visited his mother and forgave her for her anger. She cried. He visited his father and forgave him for his neglect. The older man was grateful. For Peterson, the experience was liberating and set him on the path of ordination and a successful, directed life.
It is, in its general outlines, an archetypal black American life story—the same arc from poverty and prejudice to drift and personal degradation to revelation and reclamation that defines, say, The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Manchild in the Promised Land. What distinguishes Peterson’s story, what distinguishes Peterson, is the ferociously un-racial, nearly anti-racial terms in which he came to understand his salvation. Having nearly lost himself in the narrative of being an angry black man in a racist America, he now seeks to reclaim angry black men by having them reproduce his personal narrative of purely individual forgiveness, liberation, and faith. With emotional, educational, and career counseling of the young men who come to BOND, “we are putting the fathers back by showing them how to overcome anger,” he says. “They have to first forgive their fathers for not being there to guide them and to fill that emptiness that they feel within themselves. They have to forgive their mothers for being angry at the fathers and turning the children away from the fathers. . . . And then they have to stop resenting themselves. And when they can forgive, then you feel good within yourself and you can move on with life.”
It seems clear why such a program would have less mass appeal than Jesse Jackson’s I’m-black-you’re-racist-give-me-something-or-else approach. Identity politics is easy; forgiveness is hard. The kind of personal forgiveness that Peterson preaches is more difficult, too, than the straighten-up-and-do-right Christianity of many more popular white ministers, like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, because it requires an inner revolution rather than outward restraint.
And for now, at least, the evidence of BOND’s effectiveness is purely anecdotal. Some of the graduates of the program are working for BOND—to all appearances, happily and effectively. There are a few testimonials on the website, and there are those smiling pictures of graduates and participants in Peterson’s office. “One or two didn’t make it,” he tells me. “But most do.”
Six young men, aged 16 to 30, are currently living in BOND’s nearby Home for Boys. The place looks exactly like what any parent would expect a well-tended home filled with males to look like. The bedrooms are a bit rough-and-tumble in the folded-clothes department but clean underneath. There are the requisite big-screen TV and X-Box in the front room, a pleasant kitchen and a usable washer-dryer toward the back, and a patio with a barbecue outside. Run by a live-in manager and his assistant, the Home is a place for young men to learn how to find work, save money, and pay bills. While most of the residents were at school or work when I visited, 30-year-old Mensah Watts was there doing the laundry on his day off from one of his two full-time jobs: maintenance worker at UCLA and clerk at a CVS drugstore. He hopes to become a writer and is working on a fantasy novel and a memoir in his rare off hours. He credits Peterson with his reclamation from anger and rebellion. For all that, however, there is no tracking system for BOND graduates and no statistics with which to gauge the program’s success.
Statistics for failed approaches, on the other hand, are plentiful. After 40 years of the racially based politics that Peterson condemns—40 years of activists crying bias, of billions of dollars in race-sensitive government programs—the black illegitimacy rate, with its high correlation to poverty levels, has more than tripled, to over 70 percent; the black homicide rate is more than seven times higher than the combined white and Hispanic rate; and blacks’ average SAT scores are 200 points below whites’. Whether we agree with everything the minister says or not, it’s worth wondering if Shelby Steele isn’t right when he says of Peterson’s life story that it “does what the entire field of American sociology fails to do. It makes the point that traditional values are transformative in themselves and, therefore, the best antidotes to social dysfunction.”
Andrew Klavan is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of such best-selling novels as Don’t Say a Word and Empire of Lies. His new thriller for young adults, The Long Way Home, will be out in February.