Biden clashes with 2020 rivals over his work with segregationist senators

Lois Beckett in San Francisco and Edward Helmore in New York
Photograph: Jordan Gale/Reuters

The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden responded with defiance after a day of sharp criticism from fellow Democrats, after he named two southern segregationist senators as people he had managed to work with during his career.

In comments at a Wall Street fundraising event on Monday, Biden said that, despite major disagreements, he had worked with the senators with “some civility”. When reporters asked Biden late on Wednesday if he would apologize for his comments, the former vice-president responded, dismissively: “Apologize for what?”

“Cory [Booker] should apologize,” Biden told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the senator from New Jersey, who was among those attacking Biden for his comments. “He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period.”

Biden’s initial comments about “civility”, designed to illustrate his claim that one of his greatest strengths was to “bring people together”, had sparked immediate condemnation from Democrats, including Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Booker, who are among his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination.

“Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone,” Booker said in a statement. He called for the former vice-president to issue “an immediate apology”.

Instead, Biden asked Booker, who is black, to apologize, and touted his record on civil rights.

In a run for president in 1988, Biden claimed in political speeches that he had marched in the civil rights movement, though in fact the New York Times reported earlier this month that he had not.

The condemnation of Biden’s comments about his record of “civility” in politics, and Biden’s fierce pushback, came as House Democrats held a historic congressional hearing on whether the federal government should pay reparations for slavery, and for the more than a century of state-sponsored discrimination against black Americans since emancipation.

Related: ‘Stain of slavery’: Congress debates reparations to atone for America's original sin

The debate over reparations puts a spotlight on the reluctance of many white Americans to take responsibility for their country’s racist history, and on the tensions within the Democratic party over how to address racial inequality without alienating white voters.

Biden, 76, is currently a frontrunner in the primary race. But he is also facing renewed scrutiny for his record on racism and civil rights, including his role as the architect of the punitive criminal justice policies of the early 1990s, which disproportionately harmed black and brown Americans.

The 76-year-old Biden, who was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, led a fight early in his career against bussing students across school districts to desegregate American schools, a policy designed to ensure that black children would get the benefit of integrated school system, and one that many white parents fiercely opposed. During this fight, Biden sought and obtained the support of James Eastland, a racist Southern Democrat who opposed desegregation, CNN reported earlier this year.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the 60s, which said: ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead,’” Biden told a local newspaper in his home state of Delaware in 1975. “In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back. I don’t buy that.”

In his initial comments at the Wall Street fundraiser at New York’s Carlyle Hotel on Monday, Biden had cited that same late senator, James Eastland of Mississippi, as well as Herman E Talmadge of Georgia, as two senators with whom he disagreed, but still worked with and “got things done”.

Related: Biden spars with Warren and Sanders at first event facing rival Democrats

“I was in a caucus with James O Eastland,” Biden told guests of the event, briefly imitating the senator’s southern drawl, according to the press pool report. “He never called me ‘boy’, he always called me ‘son’,” he said.

He went on to describe Talmadge as “one of the meanest guys” he ever knew but said, “At least there was some civility. We got things done.”

Both senators are remembered for their racist views.

Eastland, who died in 1986, was an avowed white supremacist known as the “voice of the white south” who came to symbolize white resistance to racial integration during the civil rights era and spoke of black people as “an inferior race”.

Talmadge, who served as a senator for Georgia from 1957 to 1981, was known as a staunch segregationist who ordered state schools to be closed rather than desegregated.

“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys’. Men like James O Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity,” Booker said in his statement.

New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, another 2020 Democratic candidate, noted on Twitter that Eastland had sought to outlaw mixed race families and believed that “whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n*ggers’”.

“It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden,” De Blasio wrote. “He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”

Saikat Chakrabarti, chief of staff for Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote on Twitter: “.@JoeBiden, what DID you get done with segregationists? I know about how you worked with them to block school bussing to integrate schools. What other horrible stuff did you manage to build consensus on?”

But some sought to temper their remarks. Booker said that while Biden shouldn’t use the southern segregationists as examples of people who brought unity to the country, the former vice-president is someone he “respects”.

Biden’s efforts to promote his willingness to seek agreement with Republicans has become a flashpoint for his campaign and leaves him vulnerable to accusations of appeasement for more extreme elements of the party.

Among those issues is criticism that his handling of the Clarence Thomas supreme court confirmation hearings in 1991 was tantamount to giving Republicans the opportunity to ignore sexual harassment allegations levelled by Thomas’ former assistant, Anita Hill.

During the 2007 presidential campaign, Biden made headlines for calling Barack Obama, then one of his rivals in the Democratic primary, “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

Biden later apologized and said the remark had been taken out of context. He later served as Obama’s vice-president.