Joe Biden declared he “should not have been so cavalier” on Friday when he told a prominent black radio host that African Americans who back President Donald Trump “ain’t black.”
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee quickly moved to address the fallout from his remark. In a call with the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, added to his initial public schedule, Biden said he would never “take the African American community for granted.”
That was an acknowledgement of the stinging criticism he received in response to his comments, which he made on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio program that is popular in the black community.
The rebukes spanned from allies of Trump’s reelection campaign — anxious to go on offense after weeks of defending the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — to some black activists, who warned that Biden still must to court black votes, even if African Americans do overwhelmingly oppose the president.
“None of us can afford for the party or for this campaign to mess this election up, and comments like these are the kinds that frankly either make black voters feel like we’re not really valued and people don’t care if we show up or not,” said Alicia Garza, a Black Lives Matter co-founder and principal of Black Futures Lab.
Near the end of Biden’s appearance on the radio program, host Charlamagne Tha God, pressed him on reports that he is considering Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is white, to be his vice presidential running mate. The host told Biden black voters “saved your political life in the primaries” and “have things they want from you.”
Biden said that “I guarantee you there are multiple black women being considered. Multiple.”
A Biden aide then sought to end the interview, prompting the host to say, “You can’t do that to black media.”
Biden responded, “I do that to black media and white media” and said his wife needed to use the television studio.
He then added: “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”
The comments came at a critical point in the presidential campaign as Biden tries to revive the mutliracial and mulitgenerational coalition that twice elected Barack Obama, whom he served as vice president. He has already committed to picking a woman as his running mate and is considering several African American contenders who could energize black voters. But with black voters already opposed to Trump, Biden is also considering candidates such as Klobuchar.
Trump’s campaign and his allies, on defense for weeks over Trump and the pandemic, immediately seized on Biden’s comments.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a Trump supporter and the Senate’s sole black Republican, said he was “shocked and surprised” by Biden’s remarks.
“I thought to myself, as an African American, been black for 54 years, I was struck by the condescension and the arrogance in his comments,” Scott said in a conference call quickly arranged by the Trump campaign. “I could not believe my ears that he would stoop so low to tell folks what they should do, how they should think, and what it means to be black.”
Symone Sanders, a Biden senior adviser who is also black, said his comment in Friday’s interview was “made in jest.”
“Let’s be clear about what the VP was saying,” Sanders tweeted. “He was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.”
Trump himself has a history of incendiary rhetoric related to race.
When he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump called many Mexican immigrants “rapists.” Campaigning in 2016, he asked black voters, “what the hell do you have to lose?”
In 2017, he said there good people on “both sides” of the clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators that left one counter-protester dead.
In 2018, during a private White House meeting on immigration, Trump wondered why the United States was admitting so many immigrants from “shithole countries” like African nations. He also blasted four Democratic congresswomen of color, saying they hate America and should “go back” to where they come from, even though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S.
Biden encouraged listeners on Friday to “take a look at my record,” citing his work as senator to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“The NAACP has endorsed me every time I’ve run,” he said. “Come on, take a look at my record.”
Black voters helped resurrect Biden’s campaign in this year’s primaries with a second place finish in the Nevada caucuses and a resounding win in the South Carolina primary after he’d started with embarrassing finishes in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire. Sixty-one percent of black voters supported Biden during the primary season, according to AP VoteCast surveys across 17 states that voted in February and March.
There is little chance of a sudden shift to support for Trump among black voters. A recent Fox News poll shows just 14% of African Americans who are registered to vote have a favorable opinion of Trump, compared with 84% who view him unfavorably.
Seventy-five percent of African American registered voters say they have a favorable view of Biden; 21% hold an unfavorable opinion.
There is a risk, however, of black voters, especially those who are younger, staying home in November, which could complicate Biden’s path to victory in a tight election. The Breakfast Club is a particularly notable venue for Biden’s comments because the program is popular among younger African Americans.
Biden’s selection of a running mate could help motivate voters. He’s begun vetting contenders, a process he’s said will likely last through July.
Several black women are among those under consideration, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge and Susan Rice, Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.