WASHINGTON â€” Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told a group of black supporters on Thursday night that most Americans were good people who think the nation can be improved, while also declaring that â€œthere are probably anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the people out there that are just not very good people.â€
Mr. Biden offered his estimate during remarks in which he spoke about the importance of a president setting a positive example for the nation on racial issues. He accused President Trump of dividing the country while pledging that, as president, he would not.
â€œThe words a president says matter, so when a president stands up and divides people all the time, youâ€™re going to get the worst of us to come out,â€ Mr. Biden said during the discussion, which was moderated by the actor Don Cheadle.
â€œDo we really think this is as good as we can be as a nation? I donâ€™t think the vast majority of people think that,â€ the former vice president said. â€œThere are probably anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the people out there that are just not very good people, but thatâ€™s not who we are. The vast majority of the people are decent, and we have to appeal to that and we have to unite people â€” bring them together. Bring them together.â€
Mr. Bidenâ€™s comments harked back to controversial statements by past presidential nominees who generalized in negative terms about portions of the population. In 2012, Mitt Romney, whose taped comments at a private fund-raising event were later leaked, said â€œ47 percentâ€ of voters would never support him because they were â€œdependent on the government.â€ And in 2016, Hillary Clinton said half of Mr. Trumpâ€™s supporters belonged in a â€œbasket of deplorables.â€
Mr. Trump, for his part, has made harsh, denigrating and insulting remarks about many individuals as well as whole groups of people and countries, including African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, women, Jewish donors, and Haiti and some nations in Africa.
At different points in his 70-minute conversation, Mr. Biden spoke about race and racism in America in stark terms. He repeated several times that he didnâ€™t know what itâ€™s like to be discriminated against on the basis of race, though he said his experience of being bullied for his childhood stutter helped him understand bullies and â€œwhat itâ€™s like to be humiliated.â€
â€œIâ€™m a white man,â€ he said. â€œI think I understand but I canâ€™t feel it. I feel it but I donâ€™t know what itâ€™s like to be a black man walking down the street and be accosted, or to be arrested or, God forbid, something worse.â€
Mr. Biden suggested that his election wouldnâ€™t eradicate the systemic racism that has sparked protests across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd after he was pinned down by Minneapolis police officers.
â€œHate didnâ€™t begin with Donald Trump, itâ€™s not going to end with him,â€ Mr. Biden said. â€œThe history of our country is not a fairy tale, it doesnâ€™t guarantee a happy ending, but as I said earlier, weâ€™re in a battle for the soul of this nation. Itâ€™s been a constant push and pull for the last 200 years.â€
Mr. Biden also acknowledged his own misjudgments about the progress the nation has made on race.
â€œI thought we had made enormous progress when we elected an African-American president, I thought things had really changed,â€ he said. â€œI thought you could defeat hate, you could kill hate. But the point is, you canâ€™t. Hate only hides, and if you breathe any oxygen into that hate, it comes alive again.â€
Speaking to an activist who was planning a Friday night march in Mr. Bidenâ€™s hometown, Wilmington, Del., the former vice president offered a gentle warning against allowing the protest to lead to destruction.
â€œWe canâ€™t allow the protesting to overshadow the purpose of the protest,â€ Mr. Biden said. â€œSo thereâ€™s going to be a lot of folks that are going to want to cause trouble. Some cops, but some folks too. Itâ€™s going to take young leaders like you to change things in the city.â€