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Candidates Talk About Structural Racism, Policing in 2016 Dem Debate

O'Malley: Black Lives Do Matter 1:40

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The Democratic presidential candidates talked about race, and in some detail, Sunday night.

During segments of the Democratic presidential debate, Americans heard a distinct perspective from the candidates: they discussed specific concerns for African Americans that included criminal justice reform; police misconduct; racial profiling; illegal drugs; income inequality; gun control and the contaminated water issue in Flint, Michigan.

"It was a spirited debate and some of these issues haven't been heard often," Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, told NBCBLK.

NBC's Lester Holt, who moderated the debate along with Andrea Mitchell, asked pertinent questions that many African Americans said they have waited to hear in a prime-time presidential debate.

Watch Clinton and Sanders Debate Race in America 3:59

Early in the debate Holt asked Clinton, “This is a community that suffered a lot of heartache in the last year. We won't forget the video of Walter Scott being shot in the back while running from police. Now a jury will decide whether that police officer was justified. But it plays straight into the fears of African American men that their lives are cheap. Is that perception? Or in your view is it reality?"

Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, and Sen. Bernie Sanders both talked about the horrific murders of nine black parishioners by white supremacist Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church, just one block from Gaillard Center, the site of the debate.

RELATED: Sanders: DOJ Should Investigate Every Police-Involved Death

The candidates, which also included Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, said, if elected president, they would work to end racial profiling and overhaul troubled police departments. Clinton called the problem "systemic racism." Sanders said African Americans are "disproportionately" imprisoned in America's jails.

This isn't the first time that these kinds of civil rights issues have been raised in a presidential debate, but was notable that the debate format featured a series of civil rights-related questions in rapid succession to presidential candidates just weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the crucial South Carolina primary.

Karen Finney, a senior spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign, said Clinton is angered over the contaminated water issue in Flint, Michigan, a predominately black city.

“I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what's happening in Flint, Michigan and I think every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said in a powerful moment at the close of the debate. “We've had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care.”

The debate, co-sponsored by YouTube, also offered racially diverse voters asking questions through pre-recorded video offerings.

Sanders: Police Must be Held Accountable 1:26

Meanwhile, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, (D-NC) chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said when the Democratic candidates are on the campaign trail, he hopes they will discuss issues of concern to African Americans like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, poverty, and African American men being shot and killed by police — and each other.

"I hope the candidates will address poverty in America," Butterfield told NBCBLK. "They need to address the persistent poverty in this country."

Butterfield said Democrats need a strong nominee, like Hillary Clinton, to take on the Republican nominee, who he believes will be Donald Trump.

"We need the best Democratic nominee to stand strong against the Republican nominee, [probably] Donald Trump, and expose him for what he is," Butterfield said.

But the North Carolina congressman said he's already decided who he will support for president.

"I'm committed to Hillary Clinton," he said, "because she has a long record of service helping people in poor communities."

Image: Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley , left, Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, stand together before the start of the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. Stephen B. Morton / AP