Former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that racists have run for president in the past, but that President Donald Trump was the first to win the nation’s highest office.
In a question-and-answer session with the Service Employees International Union, Biden accused Trump of spreading racism by blaming the Chinese for the coronavirus pandemic.
"What President Trump has done in his spreading of racist – the way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from – is absolutely sickening," Biden said in a virtual chat with union members.
"No sitting president has ever done this. Never, never, never," Biden added. "No Republican president has done this. No Democratic president. We’ve had racists, and they’ve existed, they’ve tried to get elected president. He’s the first one that has."
When asked about Biden's comments, Trump said Wednesday his administration overhauled the criminal justice system, which he said Biden and former President Barack Obama were unable to accomplish, and spurred investment in urban areas. Unemployment rates were low among nearly all groups of racial minorities "prior to the China plague coming in – floating in – coming into our country and really doing terrible things all over the world," Trump said.
"I’ve done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln," Trump said. "Nobody has even been close.
History does not support Biden's suggestion that Trump is the first racist to win the White House. At least 12 presidents owned slaves – including eight who owned slaves while in office. Many early presidents held racist views.
Although he signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, President Abraham Lincoln said before the Civil War that he did not think Blacks and whites could coexist and favored sending freed slaves back to Africa.
Such views did not disappear with slavery. President Woodrow Wilson infamously held a White House screening of "Birth of the Nation," which depicts the Ku Klux Klan members as heroes who saved the South from Black domination.
More recently, audio recordings revealed that President Richard Nixon regularly used racist slurs in his conversations.
Biden’s comments came in response to questions about his proposal to spend $775 billion over the next decade on caregivers for children, the elderly and disabled.
Suk Kim, a home care provider for SEIU Local 2015 in California, said Trump blaming Asians for the pandemic is part of the reason for racial tensions in her community. Other customers in a store recently looked at her as if she were some kind of germ or "wasn't human," she said.
"They made me uncomfortable and very upset," said Kim, who immigrated from South Korea. “We are working so hard to support our families, like everybody else."
Trump has routinely referred to the coronavirus as a virus from China and even as a “Kung Flu,” phrases that have been criticized as racist and that stigmatize Asian Americans.
“Kung flu. COVID. COVID-19,” Trump said in Phoenix on June 23. “Some people can’t explain what the 19 – give me the – 'COVID-19.' I said, 'That’s an odd name.' I could give you many, many names. Some people call it the ‘Chinese flu,’ the ‘China flu.’ Right?”
Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said the president “loves all people” and “works hard to empower all Americans.”Pierson called Biden's comments and "an insult to the intelligence of Black voters."
Biden accused Trump of trying to divide the country, to win reelection from his partisans.
“He’s just using it as a wedge,” Biden said. “He’s trying to shift the blame.”
Biden’s voice rose as he talked of supporting immigration, mentioned that his great-grandfather sailed to the U.S. from Ireland.
“I’m sorry to get so worked up about it. It makes me so angry when I find that people, based on the color of their skin or their national origin, are somehow viewed in a different way,” Biden said. “Look what (Trump's) doing now. He’s blaming everything on China. He’s blaming everything on the Chinese.”
Mary Kay Henry, international president of SEIU, welcomed Biden's support.
“We really appreciate your passion,” Henry said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden accuses President Trump of spreading 'racist' division