A remark from a U.S. Senate candidate that black males have a "genetic predisposition" for a lower life expectancy has created a new furor in what has been an especially tight — and nasty — campaign.

Black legislators Thursday blasted former congressman Tom Coburn (search), saying his remark implied that black males are genetically inferior.

In a television debate Wednesday, the Republican said black males are being penalized by the Social Security system "because they had a genetic predisposition to have less of a life expectancy."

In a statement, Democratic state Sen. Angela Monson, chairwoman of the Black Legislative Caucus, said blacks are insulted by anyone suggesting "that they are genetically inferior and thus predisposed to die before they reach retirement age."

State Democratic chairman Jay Parmley called the remark racially insensitive, but Coburn's spokesman John Hart defended the assessment.

"Social Security, as it is structured today, discriminates against African Americans because they have a lower life span," he said. "The reality is there are a lot of facts that lead to a low life expectancy. The legacy of discrimination itself has led to inequality."

He dismissed criticism from black lawmakers as "an 11th-hour character attack" to help Coburn's Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Carson.

Coburn and Carson are locked in what has been an especially nasty campaign to replace Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican retiring after 24 years.

Polls have shown the pair about even in a contest that will help determine control of the Senate, where the GOP now holds a majority of 51-48 with one independent.