Rubio says U.S.'s 'long' and 'painful' history of discrimination still affects many minorities

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The United States must acknowledge a "painful, complicated" history of racial discrimination that still affects many minorities, Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said Monday between campaign speeches in South Carolina.

Rubio told reporters that "decades and decades of discriminatory practices" have yielded a lack of economic opportunity for many minorities and sour relationships between law enforcement and minority communities, particularly African-Americans.

"It's important for us to confront these issues because we can't fulfill our promise as a nation if we have a significant percentage of the population feeling as if the American dream is out of reach for them, that they're somehow locked out of the promise of America," Rubio said after addressing South Carolina's Upstate Chamber Coalition.

Still, the Florida senator stopped short of calling for sweeping action by the federal government, saying the best way for Washington to address the matter is to create better economic and educational opportunities.

"Discrimination on the basis of race is already illegal in America," he told The Associated Press in an interview. "We will enforce those laws through the civil rights division" of the Justice Department.

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Rubio is on his first campaign stop in South Carolina since the June massacre in which a white gunman killed nine people at a historic black congregation in Charleston. In the weeks since, presidential candidates across the spectrum have praised South Carolina for its response, including a bipartisan agreement to lower the Confederate battle flag from in front of the statehouse in Columbia.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic favorite for president, used a South Carolina swing last week to embrace the civil rights cry "Black Lives Matter," which spread rapidly amid high-profile cases of black citizens dying during encounters with police.

Rubio did not go as far as Clinton. He did not mention the names of any citizens killed by officers, including Walter Scott, the 50-year-old South Carolina man whose death was captured on a bystander's video in April. The white officer shown firing multiple shots into Scott's back has since been fired and charged with murder.

Rubio didn't mention the Charleston massacre, the battle flag or race relations at all during two campaign speeches Monday evening, both in front of nearly all-white audiences.

Yet his statements away from the stage stand out as Republicans struggle to win over the non-white voters who are becoming a larger share of the national electorate.

Only a handful of other GOP candidates have prominently mentioned race relations in their campaigns. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul calls often for a criminal justice overhaul that would address harsh sentencing practices that disproportionately affect black males. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently delivered an address on race in which he urged his party to speak more openly about the concerns of African-Americans.

In his comments Monday, Rubio weaved in his personal experiences, perhaps previewing how he would discuss race as the campaign progresses.

"I know (economic hardship) coming from a Hispanic family," he said. "Because my parents never made a lot of money, they were never able to pay for college. I had to take out massive student loans."

Rubio said he "can speak from south Florida's perspective" about black citizens who "feel like they are deeply disadvantaged" in their dealings with police. "I've seen it in people, I know," Rubio said.

Alluding to some white Americans' reluctance — or refusal — to consider the matter, he added, "People can disagree or have a debate about it, but as long as that sentiment exists, then it's a reality we have to confront."

As for when such a thought makes its way into his principal argument on the campaign trail, Rubio said, "When it's appropriate, I'll raise it."

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