Clyburn apologizes after criticism of 'tokenism' by top Democratic leaders

Clyburn apologizes after criticism of 'tokenism' by top Democratic leaders
© Stefani Reynolds

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has apologized to House Democratic leadership after comments made to The Wall Street Journal in which he said he thought "tokenism is all right" among top leaders of the party in the House.

“What I mean is, how many black folks are on [House Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer’s [D-Md.] staff? I’m going to let you check it out," Clyburn, who is the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said in an interview published Thursday by the Journal.


Clyburn said that Hoyer and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election Overnight Health Care: House Dem report blasts Trump coronavirus response | Regeneron halts trial of antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients | McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 MORE (D-Calif.), two white lawmakers at the top of the party in the House, have less black members serving on their staff than some other House Democrats.

The third-ranking Democrat later walked back his comments, telling the Journal his remarks were pointed more broadly at "tokenism on the Hill" than directly at other members of the House. 

Clyburn has also apologized to Pelosi for his comments, according to an aide. 

“I did not intend anything as any criticism of Steny or Nancy, because I don’t think they deserve to be criticized on hiring practices. Nancy’s got a whole lot of black folks on her staff," Clyburn told the Journal in a follow-up. 

When asked if Hoyer and Pelosi have been told to hire more black people, Clyburn told the Journal, "I don't have to tell them." 

"They’re grown people. They can read. They can see," he added.

In a statement shared with The Hill, Clyburn said his "expressions on the lack of diversity and, in some instances, tokenism" were not intended to slight any individual members."

Clyburn said he acknowledges the strides made to address these issues, but added that "many young people of color, however, still feel that our pace is too slow, and I do believe there is still much works that needs to be done to make sure Congressional offices reflect the makeup of Congressional districts and the Democratic electorate."

"I applaud Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer for launching and supporting the House Democratic Diversity Initiative to address this issue and appreciate the work that the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is doing to encourage Members to hire diverse candidates," he added.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the Speaker's office is "without rival, the most diverse office on Capitol Hill."

Hammill said that 84 percent of Pelosi's combined staff identify as people of color, women or LGBT. Specifically, 48 percent identify as people of color and 25 percent as African American.

Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, told The Hill that the congressman "takes great pride in the diversity in his office," promoting women, people of color and LGBT staff to "top positions within the operation."

Saez said 70 percent of Hoyer's staff are female, people of color or LGBT. Of that, 38 percent are people of color and 24 percent are African American, she said.

The comments from Clyburn come as he prepares for his “World Famous Fish Fry” event on Friday that will feature 22 of the 24 Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Clyburn has yet to back a 2020 candidate and his endorsement could be a key to winning South Carolina's important early primary. 

Updated at 12:02 p.m.