Former Vice President Joe Biden. | Win McNamee/Getty Images
Updated: 05/22/2020 06:54 PM EDT
African American support was crucial to former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 primary victory, and his ability to turn out black voters in November could make or break the general election for Democrats. So after comments to a popular black radio personality Friday morning induced queasiness among some of his allies, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee eventually apologized later in the day.
In an interview on “The Breakfast Club” that aired Friday morning, Biden responded to a question from the show’s co-host, Charlamagne tha God, by saying that, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” He walked back those remarks hours later, acknowledging in a campaign call with black business leaders that he had perhaps been “much too cavalier.”
“I know that the comments have come off like I was taking the African American vote for granted. But nothing could be further [from] the truth,” Biden said. “I’ve never ever done that, and I’ve earned it every time I’ve run. I was making the point that I have never taken the vote for granted. And in fact, I know in order to win the presidency, I need the African American vote. And it was the driving force, as I said, in the beginning of my campaign [a] year ago, to my being able to win in the first place and win the primary. And it is going to be critical to my winning the presidency.”
Biden’s eyebrow-raising initial statements came during an at-times contentious virtual conversation with Charlamagne, during which the candidate was challenged over his decades long record on racial issues and current contemplation of a black, female running mate.
“I’m not acknowledging anybody who is being considered, but I guarantee you, there are multiple black women being considered. Multiple,” Biden said of his search process for a vice presidential nominee.
It was then that an aide to the Biden campaign could be heard interjecting into the conversation, attempting to cut short the interview. “Thank you so much. That’s really our time. I apologize,” the staffer said.
“You can’t do that to black media!” Charlamagne retored.
“I do that to white media and black media because my wife has to go on at 6 o’clock,” Biden shot back, apparently referring to a subsequent media appearance by Jill Biden. Glancing at his watch, he added: “Uh oh. I’m in trouble.”
“Listen, you’ve got to come see us when you come to New York, VP Biden,” Charlamagne said. “It’s a long way until November. We’ve got more questions.”
“You’ve got more questions?” Biden replied. “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Charlamagne explained that “it don’t have nothing to do with Trump, it has to do with the fact [that] I want something for my community.” But Biden remained adamant in promoting what he described as a career of public service devoted to advancing civil rights.
“Take a look at my record, man! I extended the Voting Rights [Act] 25 years. I have a record that is second-to-none,” he said. “The NAACP’s endorsed me every time I’ve run. I mean, come on. Take a look at the record.”
Prominent Republicans immediately seized upon Biden’s gaffe, including the party’s only black senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, who called the former vice president’s statements “the most arrogant, condescending comment I’ve heard in a very long time.”
“If you think about the numbers, 1.3 million African Americans voted for Trump. He’s saying [to] the 1.3 million African Americans that you’re not black,” Scott told Fox Business. “Who in the heck does he think he is?”
Lindsey Graham, Scott’s fellow South Carolina senator, tweeted that Biden’s comments “were truly offensive, but a rare and honest insight into liberals’ thinking. Liberals believe you really can’t be black, Latino, female, or intelligent unless you support their liberal agenda.”
President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign also weighed in on the controversy, posting a video of Biden’s exchange with Charlamagne to its official Twitter account along with the accompanying message: “Sorry to inform all the Black Trump Supporters that #YouAintBlack in @JoeBiden’s book.”
Trump has also made sweeping generalizations about racial and religious groups in recent years. Apart from his derogatory descriptions of undocumented immigrants, he attempted to court black voters in 2016 by asking them “what the hell do you have to lose?” and last August accused Jewish Americans of “great disloyalty” if they vote for Democrats.
Some Democratic political consultants balked at Biden’s remarks, as well. “This is so embarrassing and hurtful I don’t even know where to begin,” tweeted Rodericka Applewhaite, a former staffer on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.
Briahna Joy Gray, a former spokeswoman for Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and a frequent Biden critic, tweeted that the former vice president had “picked up on establishment media talking points.”
“This is the natural consequence of the reductive view of race & politics being pushed by the ‘identity is destiny’ crowd,” she wrote. “Charming.”
Meanwhile Biden’s campaign sought to manage the fallout online, with his senior adviser Symone Sanders insisting that the “comments made at the end of the Breakfast Club interview were in jest.”
Still, Sanders tweeted, “let’s be clear about what the VP was saying: he was making the distinction that he would put his record with the African American community up against Trump’s any day. Period.”
“The Breakfast Club” produced similarly unvarnished moments with other White House contenders during the Democratic presidential primary, as the New York-based, nationally syndicated hip-hop morning show developed into a popular pit stop where candidates could opine on the state of the race and outline their agendas for African Americans.
Like many other media outlets eschewed by the Biden campaign throughout the primary contest, the former vice president did not appear on the program until after vanquishing his rivals for the party’s nomination.
On Thursday, Biden faced an intent line of questioning from Charlamagne, who pressed him on his reluctance to concede that the 1994 crime bill “was damaging to the black community.”
As a senator from Delaware, Biden helped author and shepherd the far-reaching legislation through Congress. The crime bill has long been accused of disproportionately targeting marginalized communities and people of color.
Although the crime bill dogged Biden’s presidential candidacy in the early stages of the 2020 primary, he refused Thursday to apologize for it and even argued that Hillary Clinton, the previous Democratic presidential nominee, should not have expressed regret for her advocacy of the measure in 2016.
“She was wrong. What happened was, it wasn’t the crime bill. It was the drug legislation. It was the institution of mandatory minimums,” Biden said, pointing to other factors he claimed had produced levels of mass incarceration in the United States.
Biden also sought to respond to concerns among African Americans that Democratic politicians take their votes for granted by emphatically defending his ties to the black community, which was largely credited for contributing to his comeback win in the primary earlier this year.
“They’re the folks [who], as they say it my way, ‘Brung me to the dance.’ That’s how I get elected every single time,” he said, imploring Charlamagne: “Come on man, give me a little break here. This is where I come from.”