The leadership of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People gave independent presidential candidate Ross Perot a decidedly chilly reception Saturday.
Perot, in his first foray before a black audience, appeared to offend a large number of delegates to the NAACP national convention here by seeming to equate the nation’s crime and drug problems with the black community.
The Texan delivered his standard stump speech emphasizing the need to rebuild the nation’s economy and job base and urging all Americans to work together toward that goal. But in attempting to tailor the address to a black audience, Perot took what many in the audience considered a number of insensitive missteps.
In discussing inner-city crime and drug use, Perot on several occasions used the expression “you people” or “your people” to describe the offenders and the victims.
He also told stories about his father’s treatment of black employees and his mother’s charity toward black hobos that some considered patronizing.
“Financially at least, it’s going to be a long, hot summer,” Perot said. “Now I don’t have to tell you who gets hurt first when this sort of thing happens, do I? You people do, your people do. I know that, you know that.”
After the 30-minute speech, delegate Harold A. Sanders, president of the Tucson, Ariz., branch of the NAACP, said: “Ross Perot worries me. I’m not sure that in the area of civil rights he has the cultural sensitivity that’s required or the staff to advise him. His comments on drugs and crime were offensive. If he’d said they were a problem for all of us, I could have accepted that. But his remarks were very insensitive. Once again, he’s shown he has not done his homework.”
Delegate Georgia Verdier, of Corning, N.Y., agreed, saying, “It’s not a ‘you’ thing and an ‘I’ thing. It’s a ‘we’ thing.”
Perot, in an interview with CNN several hours after the speech, said “it never occurred to me” that any of his listeners would be offended by his remarks and apologized to those who were.
He said his use of the word “you” referred “to people in the audience,” and the phrase “your people” referred to the people they represent. “If I offended anyone in any way, I apologize,” he said.
He also said, “I spoke for 30 minutes about the importance of everybody in this country being a participant in the American dream . . . I made it very clear about my feeling in terms of hatred and the divisiveness that occurred in this country . . . All of that goes unreported. I just want to apologize to anyone who was offended . . . If I had a speech writer, I could come up with better words.”
Sanders, the Tucson NAACP leader, noted after hearing Perot’s speech that there are no blacks on the Texas billionaire’s senior staff nor among the coordinators of the Perot volunteer movements around the country.
“That’s a message in itself that Ross Perot ought to look at. If he wants to run a broad-based campaign, if he wants to appeal to African-American people, then it’s got to be visual, and not just window dressing, either,” Sanders said.
A senior Perot aide who helped prepare the speech said it deliberately was not crafted to be a statement on race relations and civil rights. The aide, who asked not to be identified, said that Perot had addressed those subjects last month before an all-white audience in Orange County and that he had nothing meaningful to add to those remarks.
Perot wanted to talk about jobs and the economy before a black audience because he believes that the answer to the social problems of minorities is chiefly to be found in a revival of the economy nationwide, the adviser said.
“Hungry people steal. Homeless people kill,” Perot told 800 local and national NAACP leaders gathered at the Nashville Convention Center at the beginning of the organization’s weeklong national convention. “If you can put people to work, that’s a huge step forward in rebuilding our society.”
Perot also said that the country cannot prosper “until we get rid of the hate and divisiveness and come together again as a winning team"--a standard line from all of his recent public appearances.
NAACP President Benjamin L. Hooks was more charitable in his assessment of Perot’s performance than many of his colleagues, but he noted that the reception for the candidate was “not enthusiastic.” Hooks had to urge the audience to stand to greet Perot as he entered the hall.
“But the fact that he was received at all was good,” Hooks said.
One Perot comment that received favorable notice was his contention that the way to bring progress to the inner city is by supporting small businesses, which he called the chief engines of job creation. He noted that banks are reluctant to lend to high-risk businesses in the central cities, perpetuating the cycle of joblessness, despair and crime.
He promised to change banking regulations to free up capital for inner-city and minority-owned firms.
Joseph E. Madison, a national board member from Baltimore, said that by emphasizing jobs, “Perot spoke to the heart of the real issue.” He said that while Perot probably hadn’t lost too many votes by his appearance, he probably hadn’t gained many, either.
A second national board member, Lacy Steele of Bellevue, Wash., said that she had not previously been attracted to Perot and his remarks Saturday dramatized why.
“He offended me by using the term ‘you people.’ He’s obviously a stranger to the American inner city. And he’s not sophisticated in dealing with a black audience,” Steele said.