Joe Biden Faces Backlash After Comments On Popular Black Radio Show : The NPR Politics Podcast In an at-times tense exchange on the radio show Breakfast Club, former Vice President Joe Biden said, "If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black." The comments drew widespread criticism.

Plus, China moves to exert more control over Hong Kong causing more tension with the United States.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, reporter Juana Summers, editor & correspondent Ron Elving, Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley.

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Joe Biden Faces Backlash After Comments On Popular Black Radio Show

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CORA: Hi. This is Cora (ph) from Falls Church, Va. I just helped my brother get connected to a video call with Tam's son so they can play Battleship while Tam is recording today's podcast. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:08 p.m. on Friday the 22 of May.

CORA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, and someone's battleship will be sunk. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: Aww (ph). Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I'm Juana Summers. I cover demographics and culture.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

KEITH: And we need to talk about Joe Biden, the former vice president, because today, in an interview on the very popular show "The Breakfast Club..."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wake that ass up.

JAY-Z: Early in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: "The Breakfast Club."

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Vice President Biden, how are you today?

JOE BIDEN: Good. Good to see you.

KEITH: Biden said something that is causing a lot of controversy, to say the least. Juana, can you set this up by telling us about "The Breakfast Club?"

SUMMERS: Yeah. So to kind of set the scene here, "The Breakfast Club" has been around since about 2010. It's a nationally syndicated show. And if you watch it, you know that it's the kind of show that's built to generate viral moments like this one. They do a lot of interviews with big hip-hop heavyweights and other pop culture figures. And during the course of the 2020 campaign, it became a must-stop for Democratic presidential candidates and big-name Democrats. They don't leave any question off the table. They spare no punches whatsoever, and I think you saw that today.

This remark came towards the end of the interview. And I want to say it wasn't in response to a question, but it was when there was a little bit of back-and-forth when Charlamagne, who's probably the show's most well-known host, was trying to get into it with former Vice President Joe Biden about whether he would indeed name a black woman as his running mate.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: And black people saved your political life in the primaries this year. They have things they want from you, and one of them is a black woman running mate. What do you say to them?

BIDEN: Well, I...

SUMMERS: And you can hear an aide saying, you know, hey; we've got to wrap this up.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED AIDE: Thanks so much. That's really our time. I apologize.

SUMMERS: And so they got into a little bit of back-and-forth. Charlamagne says, you know, that he's got to come back and see them. And then there's this.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Listen - you got to come see us when you come to New York, VP Biden, 'cause it's a...

BIDEN: I will.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: It's a long way until November. We got more questions.

BIDEN: You got more questions. But I tell it - if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: It don't have nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact I want something for my community. I would love to see...

BIDEN: Take a look at my record, man. I extended...

KEITH: In a way, it sounds like he's kind of taking the black vote for granted? Or, like, you know, I'm running against Trump. Like, what are you going to do?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So as you might imagine, this has sparked a lot of outrage, particularly online. The tone of some of it is essentially that people - black people are uncomfortable, and I'd say rightfully so, that Joe Biden seemingly, in that moment, is coming out to be the arbiter of who and what is black and what isn't black. A lot of people are calling it a gaffe. Other folks are concerned that it may indeed offend the very young black voters that former Vice President Biden would want to turn and vote for him in November. And he did not do as well in that group as other candidates, most notably Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

ELVING: You know, maybe he thought he was being funny on some level, but you don't have to be young and black to be offended by hearing what he said. You don't have to be anything in particular to be offended by the idea that someone is saying your vote is determined by your race, whether you're going to vote is determined by your race or for whom you vote is determined by your race - just a terrible thing to say. And he's got to figure out some way to walk it back more effectively than just saying it was in jest.

SUMMERS: I do think that former Vice President Biden, as we know, who's someone who has a lot of familiarity with the black community. He talks about it a lot, his deep relationships and ties in the community, dating even further back than his eight years as the vice president to the nation's first black president. And so I think for some, you know, he's making a joke, as his advisers suggested - Symone Sanders, his senior adviser, saying that today. But I think that the concern is there that he's speaking about people who aren't of himself. I think that Joe Biden knows that black voters are what delivered him a victory in South Carolina and set him on a path to be the party's presumptive nominee, when that day comes. But it's certainly an unartful statement, to say the least, and I think has a lot of people scratching their heads.

KEITH: Well, and the Trump campaign pounced on this fast. They were retweeting clips of the video, helping to make it go viral. And then they held a call with Katrina Pierson, who is a top aide on the campaign, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. And he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM SCOTT: I was struck by the condescension and the arrogance in his comment. I could not believe my ears that he would stoop so low to tell folks what they should do, how they should think and what it means to be black. That is as arrogant and offensive and demeaning as I can imagine in this time that we're living.

KEITH: The Trump campaign has made some efforts and certainly has talked about its efforts to win over black voters. But for the Trump campaign, something like this could benefit them even if they don't convince people to vote for Trump, if they just decide that they're not that excited about Joe Biden.

ELVING: It's, generally speaking, easier to get American voters not to vote for a candidate that they're not enthusiastic about than it is to get them to vote for another candidate they're not enthusiastic about. And if all you're trying to do is get Americans not to vote, that's just about the easiest thing that any political movement can try to achieve. This is not a country that is particularly distinguished by high turnout rates of voting. And certainly, it was not particularly appealing to a lot of younger black people to vote for Hillary Clinton, particularly young black males in 2016.

So if you were looking for a way to step in it, this would be just about as good a way as you could do it on a Friday. This is also a day in which one might think there would be a lot of things that Joe Biden could talk about that would be vulnerabilities for the Trump presidency - the numbers that we saw on how many people may have died unnecessarily because of the slow movement to respond to the coronavirus. So this is - it's one of those things that makes people wonder about what's going on with Joe Biden.

SUMMERS: Yeah. You know, I think for some folks out there, this certainly exposed some of the wounds that Democrats have dating back to the last election, when many black leaders felt that the party took black voters who reliably vote for Democrats up and down the ballot for granted. And I think that's one of the reasons why you saw such immediate pushback from activists as well as, you know, rank-and-file Democrats who were concerned about seeing the same thing happen again. We know in 2016 that black voters turned out, but they did not turn out anywhere near the record numbers that they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 during his two campaigns.

And so I think that these black voters are wanting to see the party take them and their issues seriously and recognize their importance. A lot of folks that I've been talking to over the last few weeks and months about this campaign say relationships are not enough. They want a seat at the table, and they want to be heard and valued and to see Biden center the issues of black Americans in his campaign.

KEITH: All right. Well, Ron and Juana, we are going to let you go. Thank you so much for joining us.

SUMMERS: Thanks, Tam.

ELVING: Good to be with you.

KEITH: And after we taped this podcast, Joe Biden tried to walk back or clarify his statements on "The Breakfast Club," saying in part that he should not have been so cavalier and wants to earn the votes of African Americans. And we are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, China.

And we're back, and I have a whole new crew here with me - Kelsey Snell and Scott Horsley. Hey, guys.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hello.

KEITH: So we are going to turn to some international news here that has political implications here in the U.S. China is making moves to tighten its grip on Hong Kong by pushing forward with a law that would allow China to crackdown on protesters or, really, anything that is critical towards Beijing.

HORSLEY: That's right. And the U.S. and, really, the rest of the world have reacted very strongly to this because back in 1997, when the former British colony of Hong Kong reverted to China, Beijing promised that they would allow Hong Kong to maintain a semi-autonomous status. It would maintain some independence, some semblance of democracy - a sort of gentlemen's agreement that's been enshrined in China as the one country, two systems notion. And that was supposed to remain in place at least until 2047, so this is seen as Beijing backsliding on the commitment it made back in the late '90s.

KEITH: Let me just check my clock here. 2047 is a long way away.

HORSLEY: It is.

SNELL: So, Scott, this is a pretty quick acceleration. Does this mean that this would be a complete end to the one country, two system?

HORSLEY: Well, our Beijing correspondent Emily Feng described this as effectively an end to that...

SNELL: OK.

HORSLEY: ...In practice. They're not calling it that. They're not overtly saying that they're rejecting that. But as a practical matter, that's how she describes it. And certainly, that's how the world is treating this.

KEITH: Right before coronavirus sort of took over everything, there were massive protests in Hong Kong against other moves by China to try to gain more control over Hong Kong. So, like, what is the international community going to do about it?

HORSLEY: Good question (laughter). Well, there's already been a lot of grousing. For one thing, the United States has said it may strip Hong Kong of the special economic status it enjoys by virtue of being quasi-independent from the mainland. That's a law that Congress actually passed last year which says that the State Department has to certify that Hong Kong continues to be autonomous or it's going to lose all sorts of special economic privileges that Hong Kong has enjoyed. So that's one thing it could do. There's also talk of sanctioning Chinese officials that are involved in this. Kelsey, there's been a lot of noise on Capitol Hill about steps that the U.S. might take. And then, certainly, the broader international community is also talking about action as well.

SNELL: Oh yeah, absolutely. I had an inbox full of people responding to this action. And, you know, it's - I was looking through the details of that bill that you mentioned. It's called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and it was approved with near-unanimous support last year from Congress. And it was in response to these pro-democracy movements that were happening in Hong Kong at the time. And we actually just saw yesterday that the Senate passed a - by unanimous consent, so they didn't even bother holding a vote; they had unanimous support for it - legislation that could force Chinese companies off of U.S. stock exchanges.

Now, this was before all of the movement from China. But the idea is that they would delist companies that refused to get an audit that is subject to U.S. accounting and oversight. And so far, the accounting firms that Chinese companies use have refused that kind of oversight. But this is an opportunity for Congress to push back on China. They don't have to mention the human rights issue. They don't have to mention any of the other political issues that are swirling around China right now. There is already anxiety in Congress about the relationship with China.

HORSLEY: Yeah. I mean, this is going to be another irritant in relations that were already polarized because of what we've seen with the coronavirus pandemic. Now, there's lots of fingers being pointed at China both legitimately for things that they did or didn't do when the coronavirus began to take hold in that country. There's also probably some scapegoating going on as kind of a distraction from the missteps of our own government here. And that's been - become kind of a partisan football where you had, I think, Republicans backing the president being more outspoken in their criticism of China. But now with this Hong Kong move, you're also going to see a lot of Democrats piling on and being very critical of China as well.

KEITH: You know, what's happening here is this is an election year strategy for President Trump to push as much blame onto China as possible, to say - for coronavirus - to say that he is tough on China and that Joe Biden would be weak on China. I mean, last week the Trump campaign rolled out a bunch of ads in swing states aimed at sort of making Joe Biden into this figure who would be weak on China, who wouldn't stand up to them. And polling shows that, overwhelmingly, the public is not happy with China right now - the American public. So having China out there as sort of a boogeyman works for President Trump politically, or at least his campaign sure hopes it will. But this on Hong Kong could lead to a more bipartisan moment of pushback on China.

HORSLEY: It's also going be interesting to see how the administration handles this because there - even before the coronavirus, there were certainly factions within the administration that really wanted to disentangle the U.S. economy from China. They really wanted to separate ourselves. Peter Navarro, the economic adviser, trade adviser; Matt Pottinger in the National Security Council - those voices have been very - taking a very hard line to China all along. There had been other voices like the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, another economic adviser, who have said, look. This is the world's second biggest economy. It's a major trading partner. We don't want to get too much at odds with China.

Of course, the president has touted or was touting that big trade agreement or phase 1 trade agreement he struck with China earlier in the year as an accomplishment before all this happened. And the president himself has kind of waffled between touting his own friendship and cooperation with Chinese President Xi Jinping and taking a more aggressive stand on things like the coronavirus. So, you know, where the president comes down on any given day is kind of a mystery.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, this is sort of this fascinating thing that I haven't quite figured out how to square, which is that the president at times, has, you know, wanted to be friendly with Xi and actually didn't speak out as strongly in favor of protesters in Hong Kong, for instance, you know, before coronavirus in part because they were trying to get this trade deal. But now you have the president and his campaign running on this idea that he is tough on China, which may make him more likely to side with Hong Kong this time.

SNELL: Isn't this kind of a classic tension, though? The struggle that U.S. presidents and Congresses have faced over time has been how strong they should be against China and how interdependent they should become with China, right, Scott?

HORSLEY: Sure because China is such an economic powerhouse. It's such a geostrategic player. And of his own accord, I don't think that President Trump would be particularly concerned about an authoritarian crackdown in Hong Kong by Beijing. I mean, he has not...

KEITH: He praises the strongmen at times.

HORSLEY: Yeah. He has not generally been critical of authoritarian moves by other world leaders. But in the current environment and in the political situation he finds himself, he may be more outspoken than he would otherwise be.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there. We're going to take a quick break, and when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it is time to end the show the way we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of this show where we talk about the things that we can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And we've been asking our listeners to send us what they can't let go of, and this week's comes from Tatiana (ph).

TATIANA: Hi. This is Tatiana from San Francisco. I'm currently quarantining with my husband. Something I cannot let go of in this quarantine is how my husband refers to podcasts. For example, this is how he refers to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Imitating "Teeter Board: Folies Bergere (March and Two-Step)").

KEITH: (Laughter).

TATIANA: And this is how he refers to the Up First podcast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Imitating Up First Podcast Theme)

(LAUGHTER)

TATIANA: All week I've been listening to them on full blast in our house as we work from home, and this has been the highlight of my week. So hope you guys are staying safe, and have a good new week.

KEITH: That's awesome.

SNELL: That's great.

KEITH: He is multitalented or at least one-talented.

HORSLEY: Oh, I'm glad Tatiana thinks of that as a highlight because that could easily go the other way.

SNELL: Yeah. I feel like the longer he sings them, the more she's going to question whether or not it's actually charming. I think it's charming right now 'cause I don't have to listen to it every day.

KEITH: A hundred percent charming. And if you out there have something next week that you can't let go of, record it and send it to us at nprpolitics@npr.org. So, Kelsey, what can you not let go of?

SNELL: Well, this is the time of year when lots of people are graduating. And I actually was out on a run the other day, and I saw some people having a celebration in the yard where people were driving by and waving. It was very nice. Not all graduation celebrations are quite as lovely. I'm thinking about in particular the Fremont High School graduation in Nebraska, where Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse delivered an online graduation commencement speech. He did this eight-minute speech, and it was one of the weirdest things I have seen on the Internet.

KEITH: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN SASSE: Congratulations, graduates. This is a big moment - not on graduating high school, but on making the journey down the stairs from your bedroom to the living room and putting on something slightly more formal than sweatpants. Your grandparents are proud of you. We're all proud of you. It took a lot of effort. We want to recognize your sacrifice.

SNELL: He was clearly trying to be funny, but some of the things went past dad joke to just kind of bizarre. Like, he was, at one point in time, talking, for some reason, about climbing a rope in gym class.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SASSE: Graduates, adults don't tell you this, but once or twice a week in real-world life, someone's going to ask you to climb a giant rope. No reason - just climb the rope. Sure, every now and then...

KEITH: What?

(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SASSE: ...The rope is a metaphor, but honestly, most of the time, it's just a big rope.

SNELL: Right.

KEITH: What do they do at the Senate gym?

SNELL: I don't know. And then there was a whole section about psychology majors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SASSE: There will always be money to be made in psychology. No, that's a joke. Do not - if you're headed to college, do not major in psychology. That part's not a joke.

SNELL: He also told them that basically, they weren't missing anything because nobody remembers their high school reunion. And for some reason, at one point in time, he just said everybody named Jeremy is the worst. (Laughter) I mean...

KEITH: So, like, I - in some ways, like, I sympathize with him. It's really hard to read the room when the room is just...

SNELL: It's just your iPhone.

KEITH: ...Your kitchen.

(LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: That's a good point, yeah.

KEITH: But, like, somebody should have vetted these jokes.

SNELL: I just don't even know. And I also feel like if you are a kid who is graduating by just watching this in your own kitchen, imagine what you're thinking.

(LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: All right. Tam, what about you? What can't you let go of this week?

KEITH: So a couple of restaurants that we all know or would be familiar with who are sort of national chains have realized that in the age of social distancing with shutdowns and restaurants all over the country closed, you know, they're having a problem. They need to be able to make money. But people generally are trying to support local restaurants. And so these two restaurants in, like, Grubhub and other apps have changed their branding. So what was Chuck E. Cheese - if you go to order on Grubhub, you might find pizza from Pasqually's, which sounds like a nice local Italian eatery. In fact, it is Chuck E. Cheese. And Pasqually - I don't know if you've been to Chuck E. Cheese in the last, you know, several...

SNELL: No.

KEITH: ...Centuries, but for a while there, Chuck E. Cheese had, like, this animatronic band that...

HORSLEY: Oh, sure. Yeah.

KEITH: ...Would perform.

SNELL: Oh, yeah. Do they still have those?

KEITH: I think it actually went away.

HORSLEY: With the rat?

SNELL: Yes.

KEITH: Yes.

SNELL: And the bears.

KEITH: Yes, and the chef, Pasqually.

SNELL: Oh.

KEITH: The animatronic chef is now - has a pizza eatery available on Grubhub named after him.

HORSLEY: If you were going to Chuck E. Cheese not for the ambiance but just for the delicious pizza, this is what you're aiming for.

SNELL: I don't know remember - I mean, I don't have very strong memories of the Chuck E. Cheese pizza, and that probably says something, right? Like, it's just, like, kid food, right?

KEITH: But they say - Chuck E. Cheese corporate put out a statement saying that Pasqually's is higher-end. It has more sauce and a thicker crust.

SNELL: Wait. That's what makes something high-end?

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Scott, what can't you let go of?

HORSLEY: You know, we learned this week that another 2.4 million Americans filed for unemployment. More than 38 million have done so since the coronavirus took hold. And I've been spending a lot of time talking with folks whose jobs have been interrupted by this pandemic, and this week I talked with a guy named Franklin Hessler. When he is working, he has what has to be one of the great jobs I could imagine. He's a tour guide in Yellowstone National Park.

Unfortunately, that is on hold right now on the Montana side. Montana's requiring visitors to self-quarantine for two weeks, and so that kind of puts the kibosh on park tourism where Hessler is. He's been struggling a little bit. He hasn't been able to collect unemployment yet. But he told me times are hard but not too hard. And he said he's really eager to get back to his job as soon as the quarantine is lifted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANKLIN HESSLER: I'm excited. I want to get into the parks. Like, this is literally the best time in Yellowstone. You know, you get all the bison babies, little baby bears, wolves all over the place. I mean, there's a lot of action going on in Yellowstone that's being missed right now.

HORSLEY: And that conversation stuck with me because I think so many of us feel like there's action that we'd like to be a part of right now that we're missing out on in this time of suspended animation. Our friend Scott Detrow heard that conversation, and he told me, you know, I'd really like to see some baby bison and wolves right now. So a quick reminder, though - with wolves, you do want to stay at least six feet away.

KEITH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: All right, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producer is Barton Girdwood. Our production assistant is Chloee Weiner. And thanks to Lexi Schapitl, Alaina Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley. I cover the economy.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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