‘You ain’t black’: Joe Biden gaffe threatens to alienate black voters

Controversy could have an impact on the former vice-president’s choice of running mate

When speculation surfaced last year that Joe Biden was considering a run for president, critics were quick to jump on his flaws. His age and mental agility was one issue. His tendency to make gaffes throughout his career was another. The fear that Biden was always one step away from an off-the-cuff, misplaced remark has been a pervasive concern for those in the former vice-president's orbit.

In recent days those fears have been realised. The moment came in the final minute of an 18-minute interview with the Breakfast Club, a popular nationally-syndicated radio show with a strong following in the black community.

During the interview broadcast on Friday, host Charlamagne tha God questioned the former vice-president – who prides himself on his strong standing with African-Americans – on his track record on race relations.

Biden, for example, was forced to defend his role in devising the 1994 crime Bill that is widely seen to have resulted in high incarceration rates for young African-American men.

But it was his comment in the final minute of the broadcast that promises to become one of the most memorable lines of the 2020 presidential campaign.

“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” Biden said, as he expressed surprise that the interviewer had more questions for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

The comment immediately prompted a backlash on social media. “Youaintblack” trended on Twitter. Several prominent people of colour publicly called out Biden for cultural appropriation and the arrogance of an old white man assuming he could define blackness.

Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, deemed it "the most arrogant, condescending comment I've heard in a very long time", noting that more than a million African-Americans had voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Others highlighted a recurring concern of the black community – that Democratic politicians take the black vote for granted.

By late Friday, Biden had walked back his comments, calling them cavalier.

“I know that the comments have come off like I was taking the African American vote for granted. But nothing could be further [from] the truth,” he said.

The controversy has shown no sign of abating, however.

Unemployment rates

The Trump election campaign launched a $1 million digital ad comprised of a montage mocking the president’s rival. T-shirts with the phrase “You Ain’t Black” are now for sale.

Trump seized on the comments, highlighting on Twitter reports of his own record on African-American relations, and claiming that “sleepy Joe” would never deliver for the community.

This is despite the fact that the president spent much of the bank holiday Memorial Day weekend retweeting posts from John Stahl, a former political candidate with a history of racist and sexist online commentary, particularly aimed at black women.

Although Trump received about 8 per cent of the African-American vote in the 2016 election, he has highlighted the historically low unemployment rates the black community enjoyed during his presidency before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

His work with celebrity Kim Kardashian West on prison reform, which led to the president granting clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old African-American woman serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug conviction, may also play well with communities of colour.

In the short term, the “You ain’t black” controversy may influence one of the biggest political decisions Biden will make in the coming weeks and months – who he chooses as a running mate.

The former vice-president has already committed to picking a female, with three of his former rivals for the party's presidential nominee in the frame – senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

Warren is due to hold a major fundraiser for her former rival in the coming weeks and was being seriously considered for the post, according to sources close to the campaign, as Biden seeks to reach out to more progressive voters.

But this controversy may make it more likely he will choose an African-American woman like Harris, former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, or even a lesser-known political figure like Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta.

A week ago, there was a school of thought that Biden did not need to select Harris as he could already count on the African-American vote. The Breakfast Club controversy has shown how fickle that assumption was. Now, more than ever, Biden may have to prove his credentials with the African-American community.