A South L.A. religious leader is causing a stir with recent comments about black unemployment in the area, some of which are being criticized as prejudiced and needlessly racially charged.
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson is the founder and CEO of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), a nonprofit organization whose purpose is "rebuilding the family by rebuilding the man." BOND stresses self-reliance and advocates for a socially conservative agenda among the black community. Peterson told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that he believed hard labor and the re-establishing of a work ethic was the key to alleviating unemployment among the black community. He also told the blog that he would "take all black people back to the South and put them on the plantation so they would understand the ethic of working."
Peterson himself grew up on an Alabama plantation and said that in the days of Jim Crow, the black community was only able to rely on each other - and not the government. "That's why I said I would take them back to the plantations," he told OnCentral on Friday. "So they would have to rely on themselves and become a better people again." He deflected cries of racism, saying, "I'm sending them there to help them build character. What's racist about that?"
Dwayne Perry grew up in Vernon Central and now lives in Lancaster, where he said he owns a house and a car because he works hard. He said that Peterson's pointing to unemployment in the black community as a problem is valid, it's not just a problem for black people
"That's just his prejudice," he said. "Plantations? This is 2012. What do plantations have to do with it right now? This is 2012."
The reverend is unwavering in his assertion that the impoverished of South L.A. -- and elsewhere in the U.S. -- are the only ones to blame for their plight.
"They are not impoverished due to the lack of material things -- it's a lack of character," said Peterson. "They're having children out of wedlock; they're angry; they're relying on the government ... I blame no one but [them].
"It's not like they're starving or don't have a place to eat," he continued, saying that relying on government assistance has become a lifestyle for far too many black people. "It's just a lack of character, and hard work will start to change that if they stop blaming and took responsibility for themselves. [We're] just pretending like these people are suffering due to racism or suffering due to lack of material things."
To that end, Peterson, who calls President Barack Obama a "socialist" and former Secretary of State Colin Powell a "traitor to the Republican party," founded the Tea Party of South Central Los Angeles, which holds that black Americans have been misled by "corrupt leaders" such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have encouraged black people to "become dependent on government programs in order to use them for their own personal gain."
Peterson is of the conviction that if the rug of government assistance were to be pulled out from under the South L.A. residents who depend on it, "many of them would scream and yell and carry on and act out -- and the rest would finally realize, 'you know what, I've got to take care of myself,'" he said. "And they would get up and start doing for themselves, because they would have no other choice but to do it, and they would become a better people."
But residents of Vernon Central don't necessarily agree with the reverend's claim that an unwillingness to work hard is at the root of unemployment in their own community, or that South L.A. needs a Tea Party.
"Does the reverend have jobs to offer?" asked David Booker, who's lived in South L.A. for five years. "That's the first thing he should think about: building some proper jobs for black people to get off [government assistance]. It's not that they want to be on it -- a lot of them can't find work, even if they wanted to, in the inner city."
Richard Smith, an employee of Simply Tobacco Smoke Shop on Central Avenue, agreed. "There's a lot of black families that I know that work hard and still struggle," he said. "I look at it like this: some people get better opportunities; some people don't."
Peterson, however, said that black Americans haven't yet realized that "they're in a country where they can literally do and become whatever they want." The reverend added, "and what the Tea Party movement is doing is awakening them to that [by saying], 'hey, wake up. Stop following these people. Take control of your own life. Insist that the government works for you and not against you.'
"It will work and it is working," he stated.
But more than one resident said that even those who attempt to create their own opportunities end up coming up short.
"I feel if a person really wants to work, they'll work," Smith said. "Plain and simple. Getting a job's not easy, but you've got to do what you've got to do. I'd rather be out there selling some fruit on the street than [accept government aid]."
Maria Solis, who works at La Santa Muerte on Central, has lived in the area for 23 years. Over that timeframe she's gone through bouts of unemployment, but she always eventually found a job.
"[Some] people don't want to work and [for others] it's hard to find jobs," she said. Solis said she knows people who want to work but can't because of the lack of jobs.
Peterson disagreed outright with Solis' sentiment, and said that he doubts people who become upset with him for insisting the poor take responsibility for their poverty are hard-working people.
"Hard-working people don't get angry when you say people need to learn to work hard, because what working hard does is develop a sense of security within yourself," he said. "I doubt that [the] people who are upset at me are hard-working people."
Many locals felt that Peterson singling out African-Americans is needless.
"He ought to get off of that black thing," said Booker. "It's men and women -- that's it. That color thing will get you in trouble every time. If he gets that color thing off his mind, he could see the whole picture."
Smith agreed. "It doesn't matter what a person's race is," he said, pointing to a lack of unity in the community. "We need to communicate with each other more. We need to sit down and discuss how we can make this community better -- not just the black community, but Asians, whites, Mexicans -- everybody. We all live here so we might as well try to help each other and create benefits for everybody."
Peterson stands behind his generalizations. "The truth is the truth," he said. "Those who say, 'well, you're being unfair and generalizing,' they're in denial. They don't want to face the truth so they're using excuses to keep from looking at themselves. And that's fine with me because I realize most people are not going to accept the truth. They love lies. They love begging and complaining. I'm looking for those who are looking for the truth, who are trying to understand how to overcome."