WASHINGTON: White House hopeful Joe Biden apologised Friday for telling a black radio host that African-Americans “ain’t black” if they are unsure who to support in November’s election, sparking accusations of racism.
The Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee to challenge President Donald Trump made the remark during a spirited and sometimes contentious interview with popular syndicated radio personality Charlamagne Tha God.
“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy. I shouldn’t have been so cavalier,” Biden later said on a call with black business leaders, after the remarks sparked uproar.
“I have never, ever taken the African-American community for granted,” he told members of the Black Chamber of Commerce, according to reporters on the call.
Biden – Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years – stumbled into the controversy as he was defending his ties to the African-American community, saying he has “overwhelming support” from black leaders and voters.
Charlamagne, whose real name is Lenard McKelvey, said he hoped Biden could return to his show because “it’s a long way until November (and) we’ve got more questions”.
“Well I tell you what,” Biden replied from a studio in his Delaware home, where he is riding out the coronavirus crisis. “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
The comments, which aired early Friday on New York-based syndicated show The Breakfast Club, quickly sparked reaction from Team Trump.
Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, accused Biden of a “disgusting & dehumanising racist mentality”.
Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, also had choice words.
“It’s sadly par for the course for Democrats to take the black community for granted and browbeat those that don’t agree,” Scott tweeted.
The president retweeted some of Scott’s criticism.
Trump himself has made several comments that have been criticised as racially insensitive or racist.
He raised eyebrows during a Thursday tour of a Ford automobile plant in Michigan when he praised the company’s founder, Henry Ford, as a man with “good bloodlines”.
Ford was famously anti-Semitic and promoted a belief of genetic superiority of the white race. In the 1920s in a newspaper he owned, Ford published several tracts denouncing Jews.
The head of the Anti-Defamation League called on Trump to apologise for his remark.
Meanwhile, Trump campaign advisor Katrina Pierson hastily arranged a press call Friday to slam Biden’s “racially demeaning” comments.
“White liberal elitists” telling communities of colour what to think about policies or which candidate to support “is the definition of white privilege”, said Pierson, who is biracial.
Charlamagne, in his 18-minute interview, challenged Biden on that issue, saying he is concerned that “Democrats take black voters for granted”.
Biden, 77, countered that he had earned black votes by working in black communities for decades.
He pointed out that in South Carolina, where he won February’s Democratic primary and turned his lagging campaign around, “I won a larger share of the black vote than anybody had – including Barack”.
Biden also noted that institutional racism was “still prevalent in our society” and pointed to how African-Americans were dying of the coronavirus at higher rates than whites.
“Those essential workers, a disproportionate amount of them are African-Americans. And they’re breaking their necks, risking their lives, losing their lives,” Biden said.
Biden has repeatedly said he would have a diverse cabinet, and he has committed to naming a female running mate.
When Charlamagne highlighted the pressure to pick a black vice-president, Biden said: “I guarantee you, there are multiple black women who are being considered.”
A senior Biden advisor, Symone Sanders, said the candidate’s controversial comments were made “in jest”, but that his message was serious.
“He was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African-American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.”