(The New York Times) – Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, apologized Friday afternoon for telling a radio host that black voters torn between voting for him and President Trump “ain’t black,” remarks that ignited a firestorm online.
“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Mr. Biden said in a call with the U.S. Black Chambers. “I shouldn’t have been so cavalier.” He later said that he had not been expected to join the call, a possible sign of a hastily arranged appearance.
Mr. Biden’s remarks came hours after a testy exchange with Charlamagne Tha God, a host on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated morning show popular with black millennials. In the interview, during which the former vice president sidestepped a question about marijuana legalization and his running mate selection, Mr. Biden also made clear that he felt there was no reason black Americans would consider voting for Mr. Trump.
“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump then you ain’t black,” Mr. Biden said.
The remark sparked immediate pushback on social media, with liberal activists and conservatives alike jumping on Mr. Biden, 77, for acting as the arbiter of blackness. His words also exposed wounds among Democrats that date to 2016, when many leaders felt the party took black voters for granted.
“I don’t take it for granted at all,” he said later Friday. “No one, no one, should have to vote for any party based on their race, their religion, their background. There are African-Americans who think that Trump was worth voting for. I don’t think so, I’m prepared to put my record against his. That was the bottom line and it was, it was really unfortunate.”
This is not the first time Mr. Biden has had to walk back a remark related to race. Last summer, after weeks of criticism, he apologized for warmly reminiscing about working relationships with segregationist senators.
Despite that and a series of other controversies throughout the primary, Mr. Biden was the overwhelming favorite of older black voters, who played the central role in reviving his candidacy after bruising early losses. Now, though, as he competes against Mr. Trump and his unified Republican base, Mr. Biden is also seeking to win over and energize younger, more progressive black voters who were skeptical of him in the primary.
The Trump campaign has seized on Mr. Biden’s earlier remarks. On a call with reporters Friday, a top adviser, Katrina Pierson, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, rapped Mr. Biden for the comment.
“Joe Biden has a history of saying dehumanizing things when it comes to black Americans,” Ms. Pierson added.
Mr. Scott accused Mr. Biden of “negative race-baiting.”
But Ms. Pierson grew defensive in response to questions about Mr. Trump’s own history of racist remarks, a record Mr. Biden highlighted on the Friday afternoon call.
She pointed to Mr. Trump’s efforts on issues like criminal justice reform, and said that compares favorably to the crime bill of the early 1990s that Mr. Biden supported.
“I know the president and I know his heart and I know his intent,” she said, accusing the news media of taking Mr. Trump “out of context.”
Mr. Scott released a statement on Twitter before the call with reporters, reminding Mr. Biden that “1.3 million black Americans already voted for Trump in 2016.”
“This morning, Joe Biden told every single one of us we ‘ain’t black,’” Mr. Scott said. “I’d say I’m surprised, but it’s sadly par for the course for Democrats to take the black community for granted and brow beat those that don’t agree.”
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser for Mr. Biden, said in a tweet after Mr. Biden’s radio appearance that the comments were in jest.
In another part of the interview, Mr. Biden assured the radio host that he intended to inspire black voters in the general election. Using the appeal that worked for him in the Democratic primary, Mr. Biden said black voters knew him and his record, and would value his close kinship with former President Barack Obama.
Separately, in a television interview with CNBC on Friday morning, Mr. Biden pledged that he would repeal the tax cuts signed by the president in 2017 and raise the corporate tax rate. He added that he would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000, as he seeks to outline his plan for American economic recovery in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Biden gave some of his most detailed explanations of his economic policy. He rejected the idea that he would govern as an economic progressive, saying, “I have a record of over 40 years, and I’m going to be Joe Biden. Look at my record.”
Mr. Biden also said he thought large corporations like Amazon should begin to pay their taxes, though he sidestepped a question on whether the large conglomerate should be broken up by the government.
“I think Amazon should start paying their taxes,” Mr. Biden said. “I don’t think any company, I don’t give a damn how big they are, Lord Almighty, should absolutely be in a position where they pay no tax.”
He continued: “What’s the capitalist system all about? The capitalist system is about everyone dealing fairly and dealing straight up with the American people and with their employees.”
The details come as Mr. Biden continues his transition from apparent primary winner to general election nominee. He is seeking to unite the party around a forward looking agenda that promises economic change, while matching the historic economic challenges now posed by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest jobs report showed millions more workers joined the ranks of the unemployed this week, bringing the total of jobless claims to nearly 39 million in just over two months. Mr. Biden has tried to pin the devastation on Mr. Trump’s administration, saying that it did not respond quickly enough to the looming pandemic threat.
“His slowness is costing lives and costing jobs and costing our ability to rebound,” Mr. Biden said Friday.
However, Mr. Biden’s comments were met with some criticism, as several progressive Democrats questioned whether his outlined corporate tax rate — and his pledge to only raise taxes on Americans making more than $400,000 — was a sign he could not deliver the programs capable of expansive change. Mr. Biden has, at times, oscillated between moderate policy proposals and embracing the rhetoric of systemic upheaval, a choose-your-own-adventure strategy which can allow progressive and moderate allies to see in his campaign what they want.
In other news media interviews this week, Mr. Biden addressed his ongoing search for a running mate and his agenda for black Americans, a key constituency in the Democratic electorate that helped save his primary campaign. Several of the candidates on Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential short list have publicly confirmed they have spoken with his team, including Representative Val Demings of Florida and Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
After a news report said that Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had been contacted by his vice-presidential committee, Mr. Biden was asked about her on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
“No one has been vetted,” Mr. Biden said. “There is a team put together to go down a preliminary list of people, ask their interests, ask them general questions.”
Of Ms. Klobuchar, he said: “What you don’t want to do is let out all the names that you’re vetting because if someone is not chosen the presumption is not necessarily true that there must be something wrong. That’s not the process.”