Not too long ago I was at a fancy party (working!) at which I spoke to a high-level banker who happened to be African-American. The event was fashion-centric and the guy was a sharp dresser, so I asked where he shopped for clothing. He mentioned a store in Connecticut where I happened to have worked as a cashier and salesperson when I was in high school. He asked how it was, and I said that I’d learned a lot, but that they paid so badly it was like “slave labor.”
Instantly I regretted that remark. Because of course working in a fancy clothing store in Connecticut wasn’t like slave labor at all, and saying that to a black guy… Well, I just felt like a complete ass. Whether he noticed or not, I don’t know—if he did, he was too gracious to say anything—but it was one of those moments where you realize how different one’s perspective and diction can be depending on the color of your skin. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have had a problem with it. But…it’s tricky, and I wished I had chosen different words.
So I have some empathy with people who make inadvertent racial gaffes (I mean, up to a point—sometimes those gaffes reveal some pretty ugly stuff).
Still, as I read the New York Times’ description of last night’s GOP debate, I kept stumbling over the fact that Rick Perry repeatedly called Herman Cain “brother.”
(Weirdly, that fact has since been edited out of the Times’ recap I read on my iPhone last night; but here’s a Wall Street Journal piece about a Twitter debate on the very subject.)
Early in tonight’s GOP presidential debate, Governor Rick Perry began a comment to fellow candidate Herman Cain by saying, “Herman, I love you brother…” In case the public didn’t hear it the first time, Perry did it again, saying “I’ll bump plans with you brother…”
Comic Kathy Griffin tweeted about the moment: “Awkward. I’m waiting 4 Perry 2 say ‘jive turkey.’”….
You know, she’s right—it is awkward. It suggests a clumsy, self-conscious attempt on Perry’s part to speak black, as he sees it, for political advantage. The fact that he said it twice suggests that it was a calculated remark, which troubles me. How does that work? In a pre-debate planning session, a high-paid (white) campaign adviser says, “You know, Governor, here’s an idea…”
To illustrate how odd this incident is, imagine if Hillary Clinton had called Obama “brother” during one of the Democratic debates in 2008. Impossible. So yes, it’s hard not to think that there’s something patronizing and probably racist in Perry’s use of the term.
Is this important? I think so, because it is telling. Remember, this is a guy who had an obscene word for black people painted at the entrance to his summer ranch. Rick Perry just doesn’t feel ready to lead the country; he feels appropriate to Texas (take that as you will).
And in that sense, he feels like a pre-Obama candidate, rather than a man of our times. The president has changed this conversation fundamentally, and it’d be a great shame to elect someone who’d take us in the wrong direction on race.