NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Ross Perot, making his first campaign stop outside the friendly confines of his volunteer army, offended members of an NAACP audience yesterday by referring to blacks as "you people."
He said afterward that if he upset anyone, "then I'm sorry," and he repeated the apology later in a telephone interview broadcast on Cable News Network. "It never occurred to me that they would be offended, and if I offended anybody in any way, I certainly apologize," Perot said.
Speaking to the civil-rights group, Perot recounted his family's ties to blacks in Texarkana, Texas, recited his hope to make the nation's "melting-pot" diversity a strength, and offered his standard anti-crime, clean-up-the-economy speech.
"Financially at least, it's going to be a long, hot summer," Perot told the group. "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,"
Someone in the audience yelled at Perot to protest the "you people" term, but Perot didn't hear. Two men yelled again, one saying "Correct it!," and Perot, appearing again to not hear, said simply, "Thank you, sir."
He went on, and later repeated the term. Applause from the audience was sporadic and polite, and NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks said he saw people cringe at some of Perot's wording.
Other officials from the organization, which traditionally leans toward Democratic candidates, said Perot was simply naive.
" `You people' is not a term you use to an African-American audience," said Lacy Steele, an NAACP national board member from Bellevue, Wash. "The term `you people' shows he is not sensitive to African Americans. People in the audience were beginning to get very frustrated."
"I don't think he's racist, he just doesn't know," said newly elected national NAACP President Rupert Richardson of Baton Rouge, La. "The `you people' thing is definitely a no-no, but I think he just doesn't know what things turn us on, and what things turn us off."
Perot left the NAACP's convention immediately after the speech, but was asked later if he was aware that he had offended some people.
"If I did, then I'm sorry," Perot said.
Hooks said later he planned to call Perot's campaign aides and try to explain why blacks were offended.
Still, when Hooks later introduced Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton to the group, he called him "very likely the next president of the United States."
Some delegates said Perot appeared uncomfortable and stiff before the audience, which numbered over 1,000. The Dallas billionaire also said he supported representation in Congress for predominately black Washington, D.C., and supported changing banking regulations to stimulate lending in inner cities.
"You have made tremendous progress in your work, but there is more to be done," Perot said. "We will not have a great country until we get rid of hate and divisiveness."
Perot noted the impact of crime on blacks, saying, "Good and decent people all over this country, and particularly your folks, have got bars on windows." Drug use, Perot said, "is absolutely devastating to our country and absolutely devastating to you and your people."
Perot opened by saying that his remarks came from the heart and that he spoke without the help of a speech writer.
"He should have someone help him with his speech," said Hosac Sharpe, a 21-year-old student who said he was the audience member heckling Perot.
"He should have said `our people.' He could have said `colored' or African-American. `Your people' sounds primitive," Sharpe said.
But Perot's unpolished address, which amounted to a kind of introduction of himself to black America, was a welcome change for some.
"I think he was something we're not accustomed to - not your typical stump speech. He was not worried about being correct or saying the right thing," said Buford Dunlap, president of the Currituck County, N.C., chapter.
"Other white politicians are more polished. They know the jargon, they know what makes us applaud, like having a black in the Cabinet, making us partners," said Willie Clark, president of the NAACP's chapter in San Bernardino, Calif. "That's what we want to hear, even though deep down in our hearts we know they're lying."