CHARLESTON, S.C. — Four top Democratic presidential candidates promised black voters 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 Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., 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.
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“This isn’t just about African-American communities,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Booker and Ms. 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?” Ms. 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 Black Entertainment Television, 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 like 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 Joseph R. Biden Jr., 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Biden, Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont did not attend, but they sent video messages.
Ms. 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 in seed money for entrepreneurs who are racial minorities.
Mr. 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 Mr. O’Rourke did not receive a standing ovation, he was warmly received by the crowd, particularly when he said that 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,” Mr. 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 the journalist Soledad O’Brien, who has been vocal in calling for presidential candidates and the news media to take issues of race more seriously. Ms. O’Brien pressed Mr. 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, Mr. Buttigieg was among the leaders with white Democrats but was at 0 percent among black Democrats.
“We know it’s going to take extra work because I’m not from a community of color and also was not a famous person when this process began,” Mr. 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; Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Booker and Mr. 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 Representative James E. 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.