Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said that comments made last week by former Vice President Joe Biden about working with white segregationist lawmakers during his time as a senator were “hurtful” to many African-Americans.
"This is about him evoking a terrible power dynamic that he showed a lack of understanding or insensitivity to by invoking this idea that he was called son by white segregationists who, yes, they see in him their son," Booker, a 2020 democratic presidential candidate, said during an interview on ABC's "This Week." "I heard from many, many African-Americans who found the comments hurtful.”
Booker noted that he had great respect for the former vice president – and rival candidate – but that also gives him the right “to be candid” with Biden and "to speak truth to power."
Biden made the comments during a New York fundraiser last Tuesday when he pointed to two long-dead segregationist senators, Democrats James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, to argue that Washington functioned more smoothly a generation ago than under today's "broken" hyperpartisanship.
"We didn't agree on much of anything," Biden said of the two men, who were prominent lawmakers when Biden was elected in 1972. Biden described Talmadge as "one of the meanest guys I ever knew" and said Eastland called him "son," though not "boy," a reference to the racist way many whites addressed black men at the time.
Yet even in that Senate, Biden said, "At least there was some civility. We got things done."
Biden’s Democratic rivals were quick to pounce on him for the comments, but the former vice president has dismissed calls to apologize and has argued that his comments are being taken out of context.
"I do understand the consequence of the word 'boy,'" Biden told MSNBC’s Al Sharpton Saturday in South Carolina. "But it wasn't said in any of that context at all."
Biden added: "To the extent that anybody thought that I meant something different, that is not what I intended it…it'd be wrong for anybody to intend that."
The tumult comes at a crucial point in the campaign. Biden is still recovering from controversy earlier this month when he angered many Democrats by saying he didn't support federal taxpayer money supporting abortion. He later reversed his position.
He's among the more than 20 candidates who will be in South Carolina this weekend to make their case to black voters at a series of events.
Meanwhile, most of the candidates will gather in Miami next week for the first presidential debate of the primary season. Biden will almost certainly face criticism for the comments. He tried to defuse the tension by saying he was trying to argue that leaders sometimes have to work with people they disagree with to achieve goals, such as renewing the Voting Rights Act.
"The point I'm making is you don't have to agree. You don't have to like the people in terms of their views," he said. "But you just simply make the case and you beat them without changing the system."
He has received support from some black leaders. Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, Biden's campaign co-chairman and a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, said Biden's opponents deliberately ignored the full context of his argument for a more functional government.
"Maybe there's a better way to say it, but we have to work with people, and that's a fact," Richmond said, noting he dealt recently with President Trump to pass a long-sought criminal justice overhaul. "I question (Trump's) racial sensitivity, a whole bunch of things about his character ... but we worked together."
Likewise, Richmond said, Biden mentioned Jim Crow-era senators to emphasize the depths of disagreements elected officials sometimes navigate. "If he gets elected president, we don't have 60 votes in the Senate" to overcome filibusters, Richmond noted. "He could be less genuine and say, 'We're just going to do all these things.' But we already have a president like that. (Biden) knows we have to build consensus."
Biden also drew a qualified defense from Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black senator from his party.
Scott said that Biden "should have used a different group of senators" to make his point but that his remarks "have nothing to do with his position on race" issues. Scott said the reaction reflects an intense environment for Democrats in which the desire to defeat Trump means "anything the front-runner says that is off by a little bit" will be magnified.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.