Democratic Candidates Focus on Racial Wealth Gap at Economic Forum

Peter Wade

Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former congressman Beto O’Rourke attended the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum on Saturday in South Carolina.

Candidates spoke with journalist Soledad O’Brien and covered a range of topics including inequality, the racial wealth divide, jobs, with a particular focus on “work, wages and wealth,” the event’s theme.

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Booker and Warren were the only candidates to receive a standing ovation at the event, according to the New York Times’ Astead Herndon. Booker talked about his plan to give $1,000 baby bonds to each child born in the United States. The government would then add to the bonds each year until they reach adulthood, depending on a child’s level of need. This would “virtually eliminate the racial wealth gap” for young people, Booker said.

“Let’s make sure, as a birthright in America, every child has a chance of creating wealth,” Booker said. “Paychecks help us get by, but wealth helps us get ahead.”

He added, “This isn’t just about African-American communities. 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.”

Warren was asked to address how the American dream is not easily accessible to black Americans and responded, according to CNN, “Yes, I think it is really, really tough. And I think if we don’t acknowledge that, straight on, than we can’t diagnose what is wrong.”

Warren added that the government having a role in closing the wealth gap is important, “Because, in part, of the discrimination that was actively fostered by the United States government.”

Warren focused on access to capital as a major reason for the wealth gap. She said that white, male bankers have frequently denied capital to minority- and female-owned businesses. Bankers “tend to be people who look like themselves and that is a problem when most of these investors are white and nearly all of them are men,” she said.

She also unveiled her plan to address the issue. Warren is proposing a tax on the very wealthy, and $7 billion from that tax would go to grants to bolster “100,000 new minority-owned businesses, which together would be expected to provide 1.1 million jobs,” the candidate said, which would “level the playing field for entrepreneurs of color.”

O’Rourke also introduced a policy he said would help close the wealth gap. He called for investing $500 million in small businesses. The Times’ Herndon noted that O’Rourke got a particularly positive response from attendees when he spoke about white Americans have not fully appreciated how race impacts the American mindset.

“We have to talk about the foundational sin of this country,” O’Rourke said, adding that racism is “systemic and foundational and to those who say we only need reform—you cannot reform a system that was founded to produce” unequal results.

Buttigieg highlighted what he is calling his Douglass Plan, named after American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which is a set of policy proposals designed to alleviate racial inequities. He said it will be “as bold as” the Marshall Plan that funded the reconstruction of Europe after World War II.

“The philosophy of our plan is that you can’t take racist policies and replace them with neutral policies and expect things to get better. We have to be intentional,” he said.

When discussing connecting with communities of color, where he still lacks support, Buttigieg said, “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. We’re working very energetically, very actively, in order to invite more people and specifically black voters into this campaign.”

After the event, three of the candidates—Booker, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke—joined McDonald’s workers striking in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage. The forum airs on BET on Sunday.

Not in attendance were other top candidates in the race invited by the forum: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and former vice president Joe Biden, who all sent video messages instead.

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