Rep. Byron Donalds pushes back on Democratic criticism after saying ‘the Black family was together’ during Jim Crow

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican who is seen as a potential running mate for Donald Trump, is defending himself amid Democratic criticism of comments he’d made Tuesday suggesting that Black families were “together” during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.

Donalds’ comments, which come as Trump’s campaign seeks to make inroads with non-White voters, were made at an event in Philadelphia with Texas Rep. Wesley Hunt, another Black Republican supporter of the former president.

“You see, during Jim Crow, the Black family was together,” Donalds said at the Tuesday event, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“During Jim Crow, more Black people were not just conservative — because Black people have always been conservative-minded — but more Black people voted conservatively,” he said.

That ended, he suggested, due to a culture of dependence promoted by the federal government’s welfare system in the 1950s, including the establishment of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — the federal agency now known as the Department of Health and Human Services — and civil rights efforts that followed under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.

“And then HEW, Lyndon Johnson — you go down that road, and now we are where we are,” Donalds said.

In an interview with CNN’s Abby Phillip on “NewsNight” on Wednesday evening, Donalds acknowledged that Black Americans are better off today than they were during the Jim Crow era, and he doubled down on his argument that Black marriage rates were higher prior to the enactment of several social welfare programs during the Johnson administration.

“All I was doing is referring to the time periods when you talk about the historical timelines in America and coinciding with Black families and what their marriage rate in Black families are,” Donalds said.

“Nobody ever made nostalgia, that was never the point. It wasn’t even about that,” he added. “I didn’t say that. I didn’t even insinuate that.”

Donalds’ comments drew harsh rebukes Wednesday from President Joe Biden’s campaign, which said on X, “Trump VP contender Byron Donalds claims life was better for Black Americans during Jim Crow,” as well as from other Democrats.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries took to the House floor at the conclusion of votes to call out Donalds.

“That’s an outlandish, outrageous and out-of-pocket observation,” the New York Democrat said Wednesday. “We were not better off when a young boy named Emmett Till could be brutally murdered without consequence because of Jim Crow. We were not better off when Black women could be sexually assaulted without consequence because of Jim Crow.”

He added: “How dare you make such an ignorant observation? You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Rep. Steven Horsford, the Nevada Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement that Donalds’ comments reflect “a pattern of embracing racist ideologies that we see time and again within the MAGA Republican Party.”

“Rep. Donalds is playing his role as the mouthpiece who will say the quiet parts out loud that many will not say themselves,” Horsford said.

Donalds also responded in a video posted on X Wednesday, saying that Biden’s campaign and Jeffries should “check your sources and stop lying to the American people.”

“They’re trying to say that I said Black people were doing better under Jim Crow. I never said that. They are lying,” Donalds said.

“What I said was is that you had more Black families under Jim Crow, and it was the Democrat polices under H.E.W., under the welfare state, that did help to destroy the Black family. That’s what I said,” he said. “I also said that you’re seeing a reinvigoration of Black families today in America, and that is a good thing.”

CNN reported Wednesday that Donalds, among others, has been sent various levels of paperwork in the vetting process to be Trump’s running mate, according to two sources familiar with the process.

The controversy over the congressman’s remarks comes as polls show Trump making gains with Black and Hispanic voters compared to his performance in the 2020 election. Though Philadelphia, where Donalds’ comments occurred, is overwhelmingly Democratic, Pennsylvania is poised to once again serve as one of the most important swing states in November’s election.

The Biden campaign seized on Donalds’ Philadelphia remarks to attack Trump and his attempts to reach Black voters. “From touting his mugshot to hawking fake sneakers, Trump and his campaign have shown Black Americans how little they think of us – Black voters are about to show Trump how little they think of him, his allies, and his racist agenda this November,” campaign spokesperson Sarafina Chitika said in a statement.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Kit Maher, Aaron Pellish, Haley Talbot and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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