updated 5/22/2005 1:59:31 PM ET 2005-05-22T17:59:31

President Vicente Fox on Sunday defended his commitment to minorities and human rights on a U.S. radio program, in his first public response to his controversial comment that Mexicans take the U.S. jobs that “not even” blacks want.

U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson pressed the Mexican president for an apology for the remark that has strained already tense relations between U.S. blacks and Hispanics, during an interview on a Chicago gospel station.

“I very much regret the misinterpretation,” said Fox, touting laws created under his administration that outlaw discrimination and protect minorities.

Fox met with Jackson behind closed doors on Wednesday in Mexico City after the president’s comments about black Americans ignited a firestorm of criticism from the black community and angered the U.S. government. The president had explained himself only through his spokespeople until Sunday’s on-the-air encounter with Jackson.

“Why not apologize?” Jackson asked.

“My government has proven its high commitment to human rights,” responded Fox, adding that he is eager to work with minority groups in the United States to improve labor conditions.

“That’s why I feel so well in my conscience and well in my position: Because I am a passionate defender of human rights and integration of minorities and full respect to every person in his aspirations,” Fox said. “My comment was fully oriented in that direction.”

Jackson thanked Fox for “showing a contrite spirit.”

Sharpton demands apology
But the 30-minute interview may not be the end of hard questions for Fox. Activist Al Sharpton has demanded that Fox apologize when the two meet Monday in Mexico City, 10 days after Fox’s controversial comment.

Many Mexicans were at first puzzled by the outcry over Fox’s comment, saying that president was justified in his reaction to new U.S. immigration policies that include extending walls along the border and cracking down on illegal migrants.

But Fox’s comment unveiled to the world Mexico’s obsession with skin color, which dictates people’s status in society in a way few Mexicans are comfortable discussing.

Much of Mexico’s population is of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, and Indians are overwhelmingly poor with little access to education.

Jackson asked Fox whether any blacks served in his government. But it was not clear from his answer whether Fox — who spoke in English — fully heard or understood the question. Few if any people from Mexico’s tiny black population serve in the top ranks of Mexican government.

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