Republican presidential candidates have thus far generally treated the Black Lives Matter movement unfavorably — outright ignoring the cause or blaming the protests for a (nonexistent) rise in anti-police violence.
But in a largely unnoticed appearance on Fox News's The Kelly File in August — resurfaced by Peter Beinart and Jamelle Bouie on Wednesday — Sen. Marco Rubio gave a surprisingly strong response to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter that showed he not only views racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a real issue, but actually understands the roots of the problem.
"This is a legitimate issue," Rubio said. "It is a fact that in the African-American community around this country there has been, for a number of years now, a growing resentment toward the way law enforcement and the criminal justice system interacts with the community. It is particularly endemic among young African-American males — that in some communities in this country have a much higher chance of interacting with criminal justice than higher education. We do need to face this. It is a serious problem in this country."
Rubio also gave a personal anecdote: "I have one friend in particular who's been stopped in the last 18 months eight to nine different times. Never got a ticket for being stopped — just stopped. If that happened to me, after eight or nine times, I'd be wondering what's going on here. I'd be upset about it. So would anybody else."
Rubio showed he gets the problem
Rubio went even further than most of his Republican peers have by providing an explanation for one of the many, many ways the system disproportionately locks minority groups out of future opportunities:
If you're arrested, if you're a 19-year-old, young minority male — African American or Hispanic — you're arrested, if you don't have any money, you're going to get public defenders. And they're going to push you toward a plea deal, because they're handling a thousand cases. You now have a record, which means you are now stigmatized — in the eyes of your employer, in the eyes of your future, etc. …
And once you incarcerate someone, their chances of repeating offenses in the future begin to climb, because you're now basically housing them with criminals that they're learning the tools of the trade [with].
We do need to address that. And it is particularly troubling among young African-American males.
Rubio also rightly pointed out that racial disparities cannot be solved entirely by the federal government or even government in general.
Policies at all levels of government — not just federal — make it so the criminal justice system tends to overpolice and underpolice minority communities: Police will usually focus on petty crimes, which can amount to harassment over extremely small offenses. But when someone is murdered or shot in these areas, police tend to respond slowly, with fewer resources and less serious attention.
Part of the problem is also cultural. One reason police are more likely to use force on and arrest black Americans is because they're more likely to perceive black people as threats due to what's known as "implicit bias." Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Part of this can be addressed through better training for cops, but some of it is simply rooted in how a person is raised, the kind of media he's exposed to, and other cultural influences.
So Rubio is right in acknowledging not just that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are a big problem, but how the problem presents itself. That's a big contrast to a Republican field that has ranged from ignorant to hostile toward Black Lives Matter.