CHICAGO — Pete Buttigieg stood on Tuesday before an audience of African-Americans, a group that has been largely indifferent to his presidential aspirations, and promised to enact policies that would begin to undo racist and discriminatory practices historically aimed at them.
“If we do not tackle the problem of racial inequality in my lifetime, I am convinced that it will upend the American project in my lifetime,” said Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. “It brought our country to its knees once and if we do not act, it could again.”
If elected president, Mr. Buttigieg said, he would work to improve police training, create a federal fund for investment in minority-owned businesses, abolish private federal prisons and ban incarceration for simple drug possession. He would address voting rights by instituting automatic voter registration, expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, he said.
Mr. Buttigieg, 37, appeared in Chicago at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s annual convention, a traditional stop on the campaign trail for Democrats running for president. On Tuesday morning, Mr. Buttigieg huddled privately with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights leader and the organization’s founder, in a hotel conference room for more than 20 minutes. He mingled with conference attendees at Mr. Jackson’s side, ducked behind a black curtain backstage for a one-on-one chat and joined him for a breakfast of eggs and orange juice before the speech.
The convention is a crucial opportunity for Mr. Buttigieg, who has yet to make inroads with black voters. Over the last five days, Mr. Jackson has introduced candidates to heavily African-American crowds of Democrats and labor union members. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Amy Klobuchar have all appeared in the last several days.
Mr. Buttigieg is facing problems with African-Americans on several fronts, and he has failed to draw many black people to his campaign events.
Shortly after he became mayor of South Bend, in 2012, he fired the city’s first black police chief and was heavily criticized for the move. The city is 26 percent African-American yet has a police force that is only 6 percent black.
Last month, a white police officer shot a black man, Eric J. Logan, after responding to a report of a man breaking into cars. Authorities said Mr. Logan raised a knife toward the officer; the public questioned why the officer had not turned on his body camera during the encounter.
And many of South Bend’s black residents say that Mr. Buttigieg’s revitalization of the city — its polished downtown and influx of tech jobs — has mostly benefited white people.
Mr. Buttigieg has said that he is working to heal his rift with the black community in South Bend, and on Tuesday he spoke of a town hall meeting in his city where one resident told him that her 7-year-old grandson had already learned to fear the police.
“I accept responsibility for the work that is left to be done,” he said. “We are on our way on that right now.”
Mr. Jackson on Tuesday praised his efforts. “He’s handled an awful situation well by being transparent,” he said.
After Mr. Buttigieg’s remarks, many members of the audience rose for a standing ovation.
Henri Sallis, 59, said she was impressed by the plans Mr. Buttigieg had laid out, particularly his ideas on boosting minority-owned businesses. He proposed that the federal government award 25 percent of its contracts to firms owned by women and people of color, a move that he said could “inject more than $100 billion into communities of color.”
“He seems like he’s on the right track, but I hope he can stick to it,” said Ms. Sallis, who owns a business in Chatham, a community on the South Side of Chicago.
“I thought he seemed genuine,” said Pattilyn Beals, 34, who works in nonprofit management. “He did some research. I appreciated that. It wasn’t a standard stump speech.”
Before his speech, Mr. Buttigieg chalked up his lack of popularity with black voters in part to a lack of familiarity. “There’s a lot of voters I need to get to know, and who need to get to know me,” he said. “When you’re new on the scene and you’re not from a community of color, you’ve got to work that much harder to gain trust.”
On Monday, he said at a news conference that in the coming weeks, the city would review the police department’s policies on use of force, body cameras and vehicle pursuits. He also said he had written to the Justice Department, “inviting them to have a dialogue with us about any ways that they could be helpful to the community.”
“If any officer is consciously racist, they should show themselves the door right away,” he said of his efforts to hire a diverse police force. “Every mayor works in the shadow of systemic racism. Every resident lives in the shadow of systemic racism, people of color and people who are not. So this is not an attack on our police department. We will always support police officers who do the right thing.”
His campaign received a boost on Monday when it announced that he had raised $24.8 million in the last three months.