House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) pauses to speak with reporters on the way to a Democratic caucus meeting on May 21. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Thursday apologized to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) for an interview in which he said “tokenism is all right” with the top two House Democratic leaders.

Clyburn called Pelosi to apologize for the remarks, which he made in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Asked if she had accepted the apology, Pelosi said, “Of course.”

Said Hoyer to the same question, “Well, he apologized.” Clyburn apologized to Hoyer face-to-face, Hoyer said.

“I think he’s totally inaccurate,” Hoyer added. “I mean, you’ve seen my staff. The irony is, my floor staff are all minorities — a Mexican, a Chinese American and an African American. I looked at him and said, ‘Jim, you’ve known me for 60 years. What are you saying?’”

Leaving a private whip team meeting where the three had been present but the matter was not discussed, Clyburn confirmed that he had apologized.

In the Wall Street Journal interview, Clyburn initially accused Pelosi and Hoyer of tokenism in their hiring practices.

“I’ve always managed a fully integrated staff. Pelosi doesn’t have that experience, nor does Hoyer have that experience. To them, tokenism is all right with them,” Clyburn said.

He walked back his comments in a follow-up interview with the newspaper, arguing that his remarks were “pointed at the tokenism on the Hill” as a whole.

“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,” Clyburn said. “Nancy’s got a whole lot of black folks on her staff.”

Clyburn’s remarks ripped open an old wound for Democrats, who have long battled accusations that the diversity of their congressional staffs have not matched their rhetoric.

The episode also comes amid a broader conversation about race within the Democratic Party, including a historic House hearing Wednesday on reparations for slavery and a backlash after former vice president Joe Biden, who is running for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, touted his history of working with segregationists in the Senate.

On Friday night, Clyburn will host his annual fish fry in South Carolina, where most of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls will be in attendance as they work to win support among the key primary state’s large black electorate.

The discussion of staff diversity has been amplified in recent years by analysis from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which has tracked how congressional offices have fallen short on the issue.

A 2018 report from the Joint Center found members of racial minority groups account for 38 percent of the U.S. population, but only about 14 percent of all top House staff. And in some measures, Democrats lagged Republicans: Of 329 white members serving in the last Congress, only 16 had minority chiefs of staff — six worked for Democrats, 10 for Republicans.

“We’re still being criticized by a lot of young people who do not feel that our whole caucus, Democratic caucus, is paying sufficient attention to economic opportunities for African Americans,” Clyburn said Thursday. “And I want us to make sure that we do that. All I’m saying was that if you need 90 percent of African American votes in order to get 50 percent of the total vote, then you ought to allow your staff to reflect those congressional districts.”

The issue has become enough of a sensitive point that a special committee designed to modernize Congress included staff diversity in its mission and was holding a hearing on that very issue Thursday afternoon.

Pelosi’s office furnished statistics Thursday showing that 48 percent of the 63 staff members working in her leadership and district offices are racial minorities; 25 percent of them are black. Only 16 percent of her staff are straight white men, the data show. Hoyer’s floor director, Shuwanza Goff, is the first black woman to hold that powerful post.

Clyburn said he apologized because it “seemed to be overlooked” that the current Democratic leaders had established a new staff diversity office to address those concerns.

“To the extent that that was not made clear, I apologize — I was not talking about their staff; I was talking about the broader caucus,” he said. “Our staffs are fine. The whole caucus is not fine.”

But Clyburn also brought up another sore spot — a briefly rancorous race for whip that ensued after the Democrats’ 2018 midterm victory. Clyburn faced a challenge from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Clyburn publicly accused his opponents (though not DeGette personally) of describing his as a “figurehead” who wasn’t up to the job of counting votes in the majority.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve heard that black folks are lazy — the reason they don’t get ahead, they are lazy,” he said, suggesting “That is a racially charged word that was applied to me. And I don’t like it one damn bit.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

mike.debonis@washpost.com felicia.sonmez@washpost.com