GOP senator who mocked Kamala Harris once asked Black supporter about Perdue chicken and Herman Cain

Republican Sen. David Perdue is not part of the family who owns Perdue Farms

Published October 20, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., drew swift backlash on Friday night after he deliberately mispronounced Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris' first name at a rally, adding several syllables as he drew laughs from the crowd.

The senator's re-election campaign said the Republican senator had "simply mispronounced Senator Harris' name, and he didn't mean anything by it." Harris' press secretary rebuked the remarks as "incredibly racist" as members of the media poured cold water on the campaign's claim.

"Perdue has served with Kamala Harris in the Senate for four years," Washington Post White House Bureau Chief Phil Rucker tweeted. "He knows how to properly pronounce her name."

The controversial remarks prompted the #MyNameIs hashtag to trend on Twitter as people of color shared their experiences about their names.

"Our names are a fundamental part of our identity and pride," Iranian-American news anchor Asieh Namdar tweeted. "They tell the story of who we are. Pronouncing it properly is a sign of respect. Some of us immigrants with 'difficult' names are frankly too too old and too tired to have to say this over and over again."

Perdue likely has a last name familiar to many Americans because of its resemblance to the namesake of Perdue Farms. However, the Republican is not part of the family who owns the major poultry processing company.

Nevertheless, the senator once invoked this likeness during a brief conversation with a Black man at a 2014 campaign event. Upon introduction, the Republican asked whether the young man liked Perdue chicken before referencing Herman Cain, the former Black Republican presidential candidate. The unprompted exchange, which took place at a campaign stop in the northwest Atlanta suburb of Marietta, was caught on video footage first obtained by Salon.

As seen on the video, a young Black man with a blue Perdue campaign sticker on his maroon shirt introduced himself to the candidate. Amid crosstalk, the unidentified man shook Perdue's hand in an apparent sign of support.

As he placed a hand on the man's shoulder, Perdue said, "Let me ask you a question: How do you like Perdue chicken?"

"Delicious," the man responded.

"Herman Cain's got to be at our thing Sunday or Monday night," Perdue continued, referencing the well-known Black Republican politician from Georgia who had run for president two years earlier. 

Perdue added that Cain had jokingly endorsed his campaign by "talking about how much he loves Perdue chicken."

Cain, a co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, died from complications of COVID-19 in July at age 74. He tested positive for the disease shortly after appearing without a mask at Trump's rally in Tulsa, Okla.

Cain was a radio host with a contract which prevented him from officially endorsing any candidate in 2014. However, he said at the time how much he "loved Perdue chickens" with a wink. A few weeks prior to the event, Cain used the line during a talk at his alma mater Morehouse College, a historically Black institution.

The young Black man at the Marietta campaign event wore a maroon shirt, Morehouse College's color. However, he did not appear in the video to connect Perdue's opening question about chicken with Cain's earlier remarks.

The reflexive association of Black people with chicken is a widely known racist trope. A Republican lawmaker from Tennessee received blowback over the weekend for blaming obesity rates in his state on fried chicken.

"Any attempt to use this video to attack Senator Perdue is based on absolutely ridiculous and false assumptions and this shows just how desperate the Democrats are in this race," a Perdue spokesperson told Salon in a lengthy emailed statement, the entirety of which is printed at the conclusion of this article. 

As criticism of Perdue's attack against Harris spread on Friday, Perdue Farms took steps to clarify public misconception about connections to the Republican senator amid calls to boycott the company. A spokesperson tweeted multiple times that "David Perdue has no affiliation with our Perdue brand."

Those remarks also drew comparisons to a 2006 incident when then-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., called a tracker from his opponents' campaign "Macaca," which is a Portuguese word for "monkey." Allen, who later apologized, narrowly lost the election to Democrat Jim Webb.

The Perdue campaign was forced to pull an attack ad in July that enlarged the nose of Democratic rival John Ossoff — a common anti-Semitic trope. A spokesperson, who said the campaign had pulled the ad "to ensure there is absolutely no confusion," called the distortion "accidental" at the time. Perdue, the official said, had a "strong and consistent record of standing firmly against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate."

The communications director for the Perdue campaign, who in a widely ridiculed tweet defended what he called Perdue's "mispronouncing" of Harris' name, was once forced to delete a tweet confusing two people of color that he posted while serving as a GOP operative in 2016. He acknowledged the tweet was "disrespectful" in his apology. 

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose show once featured a guest who told Black Americans "you need to move on" from slavery, lashed out this August after a guest corrected him for mispronouncing Harris' name.

"So I'm disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally?" Carlson asked at the time before intentionally mispronouncing the senator's name.

Harris has taught others how to properly pronounce her first name by invoking a common punctuation mark: the comma. 

Ossoff's campaign raised $1.8 million in the wake of Perdue's weekend remarks. A debate previously scheduled for tomorrow was moved to Oct. 28 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., abruptly called legislators back to Washington for a possible vote on a coronavirus relief bill.

Perdue Farms did not immediately provide a response Salon's request for comment.

Below is the Perdue campaign's full statement to Salon:

Any attempt to use this video to attack Senator Perdue is based on absolutely ridiculous and false assumptions and this shows just how desperate the Democrats are in this race. In 2014, David Perdue was an outsider who had never run for office. Voters heard he was a Fortune 500 CEO and would often ask him out on the campaign trail if he was the "Perdue chicken guy." Herman Cain, who ended up becoming a dear personal friend of the Senator, would often joke with David that most people probably thought he was associated with the company. At the time, Herman Cain had contractual obligations with his radio show that kept him from endorsing candidates, but he felt so strongly in Perdue's campaign that he often said on his radio show and in speeches that he really liked "Perdue chicken" when talking about David and the Senate race. One of the speeches where he used the "Perdue chicken" line while answering a question about the senate race was at his alma mater Morehouse College. Several Morehouse College students ended up volunteering and working for the Perdue campaign in the following weeks. Any attempt to turn it into something else is completely absurd. On a final note, Herman Cain was a dear personal friend of Senator Perdue. This attempt to use him after his tragic passing is shameful and disgusting.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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