Democratic presidential front-runner Joseph R. Biden Jr. bucked demands to apologize Wednesday for praising segregationists and joking about calling black men “boys,” yet again testing his popularity among black voters.
The first jab came from Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, who also is seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination and said Mr. Biden had already waited too long to apologize.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,'” said Mr. Booker, one of three black candidates in the Democratic presidential race.
Democratic presidential hopefuls including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont soon joined in the rebuke of Mr. Biden.
Mr. Biden bristled at the criticism. “Apologize for what?” he told reporters outside a fundraiser in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.
He said Mr. Booker is the one who should apologize. “He knows better,” said the former vice president.
“I’ve not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period, period, period,” he said.
The trouble started a day earlier in a speech in a speech at a fundraiser in New York. The former vice president reminisced about his camaraderie with two staunch segregationists, the late Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats, saying their relationship exemplified a more “civil” era in U.S. politics.
Mr. Biden, mimicking a Southern drawl, joked that Eastland “never called me boy, he always called me son,” according to a pool report.
Eastland, who was known as the “Voice of the White South,” was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Mr. Biden arrived in the chamber in 1973. Mr. Biden would go on to lead that committee from 1987 to 1995.
Mr. Biden said Talmadge was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew” but they managed to make Washington work.
“At least there was some civility. We got things done,” Mr. Biden said. “We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and ‘you’re the enemy.’ Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The anecdote about his Dixiecrat colleagues was intended to beat back what Mr. Biden described as the far-left’s criticism that he is “too old-fashioned.”
Instead, it provoked criticism from his Democratic rivals and from civil rights activists.
Cornell William Brooks, a former president and CEO of the NAACP, said he was perplexed by the comment.
“Vice President Biden suggests because a segregationist referred to him as ‘son’ as a white man, as opposed to referring to black men as boys, that this is a mark of civility between two senators, when in fact it’s simply one white senator according a modicum of respect to another white senator,” he said on CNN. “Civility would be for someone like that to work with people who he discriminated against, that he spoke ill of.”
The episode also rekindled criticism of Mr. Biden for having opposed busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s, when as a senator from Delaware he argued that integration would prevent black people from retaining “their own identity.”
Having served alongside the country’s first black president, Mr. Biden enjoys strong support from black voters who are the backbone of the Democratic electorate.
Black political leaders hesitated to call out Mr. Biden.
South Carolina state Rep. Jerry N. Govan, chairman of the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus, said he had heard the vice president tell that story before and wasn’t offended by it, adding that Mr. Biden’s record on civil rights and racial justice “second to none.”
Mr. Govan refused to speculate how talk of segregationists would affect the nominating contest in South Carolina, which holds the first primary in the South and is a crucial test of black support for the Democratic hopefuls.
Mr. Biden’s rivals for the nomination were less forgiving.
In a tweet, Mr. de Blasio, who is white and married to a black woman, bemoaned that in 2019 Mr. Biden was “longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland.”
“Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal and that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n—ers,'” he tweeted. “It’s past time for apologies or evolution from Joe Biden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”
Ms. Harris said Mr. Biden’s fond recollection of segregationists “concerns me deeply.”
“If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now,” she told reporters at the Capitol.
“I’m not here to criticize other Democrats,” Ms. Warren told reporters. “But it’s never OK to celebrate segregationists. Never.”
In a tweet, Mr. Sanders said he agreed with Mr. Booker’s call for an apology.
“This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals,” he tweeted.
The Biden campaign did not respond to email from The Washington Times requesting comment.
© Copyright (c) 2019 News World Communications, Inc.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.