CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice continued to defend himself Thursday after making comments about not wanting former President Barack Obama in the state, saying he’s not racist and has black friends.
The Republican governor has drawn criticism for telling reporters that he would welcome all presidents to West Virginia besides Obama. His office has said the remarks were “in jest” regarding the former president’s “War on Coal,” but Justice, a billionaire coal and agricultural businessman without previous political experience, added additional clarification when asked about the remarks at a news conference.
“If people only knew my extended family, you know, and all the African American people that I associate with and that I take care of, families that I take care of, and people, individuals, kids, and everything, that I take care of and that I’m in communication with everyday, almost,” Justice said.
His comments have already drawn scrutiny online from people who pointed out that Obama was the first and only African American president. The remarks also came as days of protests over police brutality on African Americans have gripped cities across the nation, renewing attention on racism in the U.S.
“I would surely hope and pray that anybody that knows me would know that there’s not a racial bone in my body,” Justice said. “And from the standpoint of people casting stones in that regard, that’s just terrible, it’s ridiculous because that’s just not me in any way.”
The governor also reminded reporters that he has been encouraging African Americans in West Virginia to get tested for the coronavirus. He repeatedly stressed that he singled out Obama because of the former president’s policies on coal.
“My comments had nothing whatsoever in any way to do with skin color,” Justice said. “My comments have everything to do with policies, the policies of an administration that crippled this state.”
Justice was elected in 2016 as a Democrat, but announced he was switching parties at a Trump rally less than a year after taking office. He is facing Republican opposition in a primary election next week.
Earlier this year, the governor faced similar backlash after calling a mostly black high school girls basketball team “a bunch of thugs.” He later said that “anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.”
“First of all, I would tell them that I’m really sorry if I’ve done anything that has offended them. But secondly, I would just say this, Barack Obama used that term,” he told local ABC affiliate WCHS-TV in an interview days later.