The death of Texas billionaire and twice failed presidential candidate H. Ross Perot left behind a mixed political legacy when it comes to his relationship with Black America. The technology tycoon who bucked the traditional political structure by running for the White House as an independent candidate in 1992 and 1996 died Tuesday after battling leukemia. He was 89 years old.
Perot’s mentions across social media made him a top trending topic as many people recalled memorable moments on both of his presidential campaign trails. Prominent Texans remembered Perot as a “strong patriot.” But Black Twitter did its part to specifically remind users about how Perot’s fateful choice of words during his inaugural run all but gave birth to one of the most reviled racial epithets for Black people during his address to the NAACP’s annual convention in 1992.
After a gracious introduction, Perot dug into his speech almost immediately went sideways, at times appearing to criminalize Black people, after he boasted to the audience that he didn’t have any speechwriters.
“What you hear from me is coming straight from my heart,” he opened with while expressing one of his life goals.
“I hope before I turn out the lights out that every single American is looked on as an absolute first class full partner in our country without all the biases and prejudice,” he said before making a not-so-bold prediction based on high Black unemployment. But it was his choice of words that drew the most attention.
“Financially at least, it’s going to be a long, hot summer,” Perot told the Nashville, Tennessee, audience on July 11, 1992. “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.”
It was those two words — that single racially coded and loaded phrase of “you people” — that would go on to live in infamy in the annals of racist sayings associated with Black people.
The awkward (racist?) moment was immediately recognized by audience members, who jeered some unintelligible words at Perot that probably tried to tell him how offensive the term “you people” is to Black people.
Perot quickly ducked down to an NAACP official to ask what the audience member said (can you imagine what must have been going through that NAACP official’s mind at the time?) before moving forward with his speech, seemingly oblivious of the racial faux pas he made at perhaps one of the worst places a white presidential candidate can make one.
Perot would go on in the speech to stereotype Black people in the narrative of “drugs and crime.”
The moment was eerily reminiscent of the scrutiny former Vice President Joe Biden has been under for defending and then subsequently apologizing for recently fondly recalling the “civility” of pro-segregation senators. Biden’s comments gave some Black leaders pause, similar to the reaction following Perot’s speech 27 years ago.
“Ross Perot worries me,” Harold A. Sanders, the then-president of the NAACP branch in Tucson, Arizona, said after the speech. “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.”
The president of the NAACP’s branch in San Bernardino, California, took it one step further.
“When he said ‘you people’ or ‘your people,’ it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” Willie Clark said at the time. “It’s something white folks have used when they don’t want to call you nigger, but they don’t want to treat you like an equal.”
Once Perot was told about the error of his ways, he simply said, “If I offended anyone in any way, I apologize.” He said that even though he quite obviously did offend.
Perot ultimately lost the 1992 presidential election to then-Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush, giving him the most votes ever for a third party candidate running for president.
Watch the entire 36-minute video of Perot’s speech below.