"Brother" Herman Cain shakes hands with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011.
"Brother" Herman Cain shakes hands with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011. Isaac Brekken/AP
Texas Gov. Rick Perry likely didn't know when he twice referred to Herman Cain as "brother" during Tuesday night's debate that his attempt at easy camaraderie would set a lot of people's nerves on edge.
But he did.
That's because in the U.S. when a white man calls a black man "brother" and if they are not actually brothers (think adoption), or in a Greek-letter fraternity, or soldiers sharing a fighting position, indeed, if they are strangers or close to it, many a brotherized black man will immediately feel condescended to.
It may seem irrational. But, then, so is the notion that race based on skin color has intrinsic meaning. But that's another, much larger issue.
It may also seem unfair to the white person who may be attempting nothing more than kindly outreach to a stranger. But life's not fair.
I have felt personally marginalized when addressed as "brother" by an unfamiliar white man in a setting where there was no proper context, like say, a shopping mall parking lot.
It's because the person saying "brother" is keying in on physical appearance.
And by doing that, the white individual seems to be placing the black person in a compartment, the "brother" box. It seems like a not-so-subtle way of stereotyping.
To be sure, "brother" is a healthy improvement over the words that white strangers once routinely used to address black strangers, words like "boy" and the more infamous one once painted on a large flat rock at that Texas hunting camp Perry's family leased.
Even so, "brother" dropped at the wrong time and in the wrong place can catch a black man up short. It should be noted as well that not only blacks found Perry's use of it jarring. Many whites did too.
Some on Twitter have speculated that Perry, an evangelical Christian, might have referred to Cain as "brother" as "in Christ." Cain is an ordained Baptist preacher. Maybe it was a Christian dog whistle.
But other candidates on the debate stage are well known for their Christian faith, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, for instance. Perry didn't refer to them as "brother" or "sister."
In a CNN interview, Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said his candidate was merely a case of bonhomie:
"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," said communications director Ray Sullivan on CNN's "American Morning."
Sullivan added that Perry called Romney the same term, but according to a review of the broadcast and transcripts, the folksy governor only directed the label towards Cain.
Calls to the campaign asking when Perry referred to Romney as "brother" have not been returned.
Maybe they're searching those self-same transcripts CNN examined.
If nothing else, Perry's use of the word "brother" and the resultant fallout is just more evidence of how the nation's complex and difficult racial past has distorted "the when" and "the how" of even seemingly innocent acts and the way they're interpreted.