Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke participates in the Black Economic Alliance Forum at the Charleston Music Hall on June 15, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina. Image Credit: AFP

CHARLESTON: Four top Democratic presidential candidates promised black voters on Saturday that, if elected, their administrations would help close the wealth gap between black and white Americans, continuing the growing trend of Democratic candidates and officials talking more explicitly about racial inequalities.

The candidates, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, each asked a packed house of South Carolina Democrats to buy into a vision of how to lift up black communities, particularly regarding “work, wages and wealth,” the principal theme of the event.

“This isn’t just about African-American communities,” Booker said. “You cannot have a large segment of the population denied equal access to markets or capital or health care, and not think that is a cancer that affects the body as a whole.”

Booker and Warren, whose campaign has been on the rise in recent weeks, both received standing ovations at the forum hosted by the Black Economic Alliance, a group formed in 2017 by black civic and business leaders.

“Why do we have this black-white wealth gap?” Warren said. “Because, in part, of the discrimination that was actively fostered by the United States government.”

The forum, which will later be broadcast on BET, comes a week before South Carolina’s state Democratic convention, which almost all of the party’s 23 presidential candidates are expected to attend. South Carolina is a key early-voting state in next year’s presidential cycle because the majority of its Democratic voters are African-American.

Though black voters have long been an important Democratic primary constituency, issues such as the racial wealth gap, reparations for black Americans and large-scale criminal justice reform have become inescapable for Democratic candidates in the early stages of the 2020 race.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leader in early polls, has been especially buoyed by his strength among black voters, who are particularly important in South Carolina and other Southern primaries.

But in 2007, Hillary Clinton was the clear early leader among black voters, until they flipped to Barack Obama after he won the Iowa caucuses. Democratic candidates see black support as similarly up for grabs this cycle, despite Biden’s early lead.

The crowded and unpredictable Democratic field has also allowed for groups like the Black Economic Alliance to highlight their preferred issues, as candidates have become increasingly desperate for ways to stand out from the crowd.

For Saturday’s forum, the alliance invited what it viewed as the top seven Democratic candidates based on early polls. Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not attend, but they sent video messages.

Warren announced a new policy proposal before the forum, which has become a signature of her candidacy. Cheers broke out in the audience when she mentioned what has become her trademark “I have a plan” line. She laid out details of how her administration would propose a small business equity fund, which would set aside $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion) in seed money for entrepreneurs who are racial minorities.

O’Rourke also announced a policy, which would invest $500 million in small businesses, much of which would be targeted to owners who are women or minorities. Though O’Rourke did not receive a standing ovation, he was warmly received by the crowd, particularly when he said white Americans have not understood the central role race plays in the country’s consciousness.

“We have to talk about the foundational sin of this country,” O’Rourke said, referring to slavery. Racism “is systematic and foundational. And to those who say you only need to reform, you cannot reform a system that was fundamentally designed to produce these exact outcomes.”

The forum was moderated by journalist Soledad O’Brien, who has been vocal in calling for presidential candidates and the news media to take issues of race more seriously. O’Brien pressed Buttigieg for specifics on how he would grow black wealth, and asked him why his campaign has struggled to secure support from black Americans.

In a recent poll of South Carolina voters, Buttigieg was among the leaders with white Democrats but was at 0 per cent among black Democrats.

“We know it’s going to take extra work because I’m not from a community of colour and also was not a famous person when this process began,” Buttigieg said. “We’re working very energetically, very actively, in order to invite more people and specifically black voters into this campaign.”

The forum came on the same day that striking McDonald’s workers called for a $15 minimum wage in Charleston, South Carolina; Buttigieg, Booker and O’Rourke joined their picket line to show support.

And it comes amid continued early emphasis on South Carolina. On Friday, all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates will attend a fish fry hosted by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the majority whip and the state’s most powerful Democrat.

The only candidate not slated to attend the fish fry is Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who also did not make the stage for the first Democratic debates.