The rising GOP presidential candidate waxed about the nation's history with racism and the current state of discrimination Wednesday in response to questions at a campaign event with young professionals in New Hampshire. He noted a change that has occurred from his parents first encounter with segregation in America to his kids' interactions with their friends today.
The Florida Republican said it gives him hope to see how little his children pay attention to skin color with their predominantly African-American football team, even compared to his own awareness of race at the same age. But he acknowledged generational change takes time.
"In the short term, I believe we do need to address the reality in this country that there are millions of people who feel that because of the color of their skin, they're followed at the mall, they're treated differently," Rubio said. "If a significant percentage of the American family feels this way, it's an issue. We have to talk about it."
Race relations in America have been a flashpoint on the campaign trail this year, brought into sharper focus by the Black Lives Matter movement and the tension over police shootings of unarmed African-Americans.
Rubio was careful to add that he doesn't support anti-police rhetoric.
"I don't think the answer to it, however, is to demonize police officers," he said.
But he said that even if people don't see discrimination themselves, they need to listen to people who do.
"The reality of it is that there's a significant percentage of Americans, African-Americans, particularly young males, who feel discriminated against," Rubio said. "And if they feel discriminated that way, whether you agree with it or not, if they feel that way, it's a problem. ... I know people that feel that way, who tell me this, and in some instances, I've actually seen it as well."
The conversation began when a questioner asked Rubio what part of American history he would like to erase, excluding the obvious answer of slavery. He said that even after the Civil War, racial discrimination was "pronounced."
He told a story of how his parents once were driving to Miami when their car broke down "somewhere in the South, they believe it was South Carolina."
"It was the first chance they ever interacted with segregation," Rubio said. "Because Cuba had cultural segregation ... but it didn't have legal segregation, so for them, that was a shocking experience."
He said his parents asked an African-American woman about where to catch a movie and she replied she wasn't allowed in.
"That's a period that I think took too long to resolve, that period from the end of slavery to the civil rights era, that just lingered way too long. It obviously should have never happened, but that's a period I wish we could have as a nation have avoided and dealt with much quicker," Rubio said.
Rubio has embraced his own minority status on the trail, speaking of his family's American Dream-like story of arriving in the U.S. after fleeing communism in Cuba.
Earlier on Wednesday, Rubio noted on ABC's "Good Morning America" that three of the top four Republicans in the race right now are minorities: himself, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
"(It) speaks a lot to the diversity of the Republican Party and the strength of our party," Rubio said.