WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg on Sunday (Jan 19) pledged to narrow the wealth gap between black and white Americans by boosting black ownership of homes and businesses and investing in poor neighbourhoods.
Bloomberg, a late entry to the Democratic nomination contest, is rising in public opinion polls as he uses his vast personal fortune to spend heavily on advertising nationwide.
But the billionaire former mayor of New York trails frontrunners Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren nationally and among African Americans, who make up about a quarter of Democratic voters in the contest to take on Republican President Donald Trump in the November election.
In prepared remarks for a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the day before a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Bloomberg said his plans would help one million black Americans become homeowners over 10 years, while also boosting the number of black-owned businesses.
He pledged a US$70 billion (S$94 billion) programme to fight poverty in 100 disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
"You don't reverse hundreds of years of theft and exploitation only with modern-day attempts to legislate equal rights," he said.
The United States stands out among developed countries for its large wealth gaps and its relatively recent history of pervasive slavery, which underpinned its southern economy until 1865.
According to researchers at the Federal Reserve, white American households on average had over six times the wealth of black households in 2016, a gap largely constant since 1962 despite legal efforts to ban discrimination.
The Bloomberg campaign said his plan would help blacks with mortgage downpayment assistance and he pledged to fight discrimination with bias training for police, teachers and federal contractors.
Bloomberg has faced criticism in black communities over his support of a controversial policing policy that ensnared disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos when he was New York's mayor. The former Republican apologised for the policy days before announcing his candidacy in November.
He is not campaigning in the first four states to vote in the nomination process, including Iowa on Feb 3, and hopes to make up ground on the "Super Tuesday" March 3 contests that include racially diverse Texas, California and North Carolina.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Jan 15-16 showed 9 per cent of Democrats and independents backed Bloomberg in the nomination contest, up from 5 per cent in early December. He trailed Sanders, who led with 20 per cent, Biden who had 19 per cent and Warren who had 12 per cent.
Biden has the most African American support with 23 per cent, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling in the month through mid-January, compared to 17 per cent for Sanders, 9 per cent for Warren and 7 per cent for Bloomberg.