Perry’s trouble with the subject of race has flared up from time to time since he first won statewide office as Texas’ agriculture commissioner in 1990. The following year, according to news accounts at the time, a businessman and his son accused an assistant commissioner of telling them in a meeting: “We already have one nigger [who submitted a loan application]. We don’t need another.”
The assistant commissioner, Dick Waterfield, denied the charge, telling the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, “I don’t know whether or not I’ve used that word, but I didn’t say it. You know I have people on my staff that are black.”
The businessman and his son signed a sworn statement affirming their recollections and offered to take a polygraph test. Another businessman who was at the meeting told the Star-Telegram that Waterfield indeed used the racial slur.
The incident gave Perry an opportunity to come out firmly against the assistant commissioner’s language. Instead, he sided with Waterfield and accused the businessmen and his son of fabricating the incident to secure a loan. “I consider what this guy’s trying to do for the sake of a loan is absolutely repulsive,” Perry said told the Star-Telegram. “We don’t use that kind of language over here at the Department of Agriculture. … We don’t condone that, period.”
Eventually, Waterfield resigned over the affair, yet Perry continued to defend him. “Dick is an honest man of incredible integrity,” he said, according to reports. “I share in his disgust at these allegations.”
Two years later, Perry came under fire for his own use of racially insensitive rhetoric. At a news conference, he complained about lawsuits in the Rio Grande Valley, saying, “Every Jose in town wants to come along and sue you for something.” Perry expressed surprise that people took offense at the remark, delivering the following non-apology: “If anyone took that as a racial slam, they were certainly misreading it.”
As Texas’ lieutenant governor in 1999, Perry helped derail a hate-crime bill. Later, as governor, he fought to scuttle the hate-crimes bill named for James Byrd Jr., though he ultimately signed the measure into law. He also vetoed a proposal that would have required Texas judges to take sensitivity training.
Meanwhile, Perry has shown what critics deem an undue amount of sensitivity toward groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques and memorials from public property,” Perry wrote in a March 2000 letter to the SCV.
In 2009, Perry offered his support to a bill in the Texas legislature that affirmed states’ rights, a hot-button topic in the South given the historical invocation of such rights to defend segregation and other Jim Crow laws.