When Rick Perry, who has been dogged by allegations of racial insensitivity because of a hunting camp his family leased, called Herman Cain, the only black person on the Las Vegas debate stage Tuesday night “brother,” he raised a racial antennae among some viewers.
Gwen Ifill tweeted this: “Why is @GovernorPerry calling @THEHermanCain brother? Are they related? #scandal”
And speaking on MSNBC today, political analyst and strategist Karen Finney remarked that she was slightly bothered by Perry’s use of the term “brother” to refer to Cain. She later e-mailed me the phrase simply “hit my ear the wrong way.”
First, here’s the exchange regarding Cain’s now ubiquitous 9-9-9 tax plan:
“Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don’t need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out,” Perry said. “At the end of the week, I’m going to be laying out a plan that clearly -- I’ll bump plans with you, brother, and we’ll see who has the best idea about how you get this country working again.”
In the Fix’s live blog during the debate, here’s how people reacted:
Comment From Andrew: Two “brother” references already
Comment From e-trout: twice!
Comment From Me: if he calls him boy, Im turning this off
Comment From Dave: Rick Perry has been taken over by the late Randy Savage! Get him some slim jims!
So, just what did Perry mean when he called Cain “brother,” a term he didn’t use with anyone else on stage (in fact, Perry called Romney “sir” three times, even as Perry was being attacked and on the attack. His disdain was apparent with each “sir.”).
Was Perry channeling scholar Cornel West or even the late wrestler Randy Savage, both known for referring to everyone as brother? Or was Perry attempting a do-over of sorts on matters of race? (Remember that it was Cain and Cain alone who spoke out against the hunting camp incident, though the later backpedaled.)
Perry’s spokesman Ray Sullivan said on CNN’s American Morning of the exchange: “He is a friendly fellow. He uses that kind of language. And he views all those folks on stage as colleagues, as fellow Republicans, and he speaks accordingly.”
As with so much around race, it is likely that blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners, read the exchange very differently.
Add to that another layer: religion.
In his first introduction to a national audience, which came at a Texas-sized prayer gathering in August, Perry, who wears his faith on his sleeve, routinely referred to churchfolks of all stripes who gathered with him onstage as “brother.”
It is a Sunday morning greeting that both Perry and Cain, a preacher, have likely extended and routinely received before and after church service.
It’s a term of endearment, shorthand for “brothers in Christ.”
Speaking at Liberty University in September (h/t Stephanie McCrummen) in a speech about his faith, Perry said this, about David Lane, a leading Christian Conservative
“.. Thank you, brother, for coming out here,” he said. “We’ve been involved in some great battles together and standing up for the values that are important for this country...”
But, setting aside religion, here is what the exchange also revealed. Cain, with his 9-9-9 sloganeering, has charmed his way to the top of the GOP field with disarming humor and an everyman style. He has emerged as everyone’s favorite candidate, the guy with whom you want to have a beer.
So Perry, even as he criticized Cain, felt casual and comfortable enough to dig into his big bag of Texas colloquialisms and pull out a brother and a bump.
But back to race.
As long as Cain remains in the contest, and so eagerly engages in conversations about race (even as he seems to want to reject identity politics), the way candidates, voters, and audiences treat and interact with the only black guy on stage will be a window into America’s fraught relationship to race.
Did you have a reaction to Perry referring to Cain as “brother?” Tell us in the comments or on Twitter using #Campaign2012