After a meeting with African-American civil rights leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, on Friday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said the "biggest mistake" his party made in the last several decades was a failure to reach out to black voters.
In an interview on CNN, Paul said his meeting with leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and local business and faith leaders went "very well."
"I don't want to characterize how everybody else feels about what I said, but I think it was a good opening to the conversation," the senator explained. "I think in the Republican Party, the biggest mistake we've made in the last several decades is we haven't gone into the African-American community, into the NAACP and say you know what, we are concerned about what's going on in your cities and we have plans. They may be different than the Democrats, but we do have plans and we do want to help."
Ferguson was the site of furious protests throughout several weeks ago after a police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August. The racially charged demonstrations pitted protesters against local law enforcement personnel, whose forceful response was condemned by critics as a case study in the excessive use of force.
Paul said that "sense of tension and unease" in black communities goes beyond just the reaction to Brown's death.
"I think the shooting has brought this to the surface, but there's a sense of unease in the country," he said. "Black unemployment is twice white unemployment and has been for decade after decade...I know this president cares about trying to improve it but it hasn't gotten better."
The Kentucky Republican has made it a personal mission to improve the GOP's image among black Americans, emphasizing his proposals on criminal justice reform and his aversion to voter identification laws, pushed by Republicans, that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.
He's directed particularly harsh criticism at the sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes, saying the U.S. shouldn't be a society that locks people up for petty infractions and throws away the key.
"Drugs are a scourge. We need to keep our young people from using them," he told CNN on Friday. "But we need not to be filling up our prisons with these kids. We need not to be breaking down doors at two in the morning looking for drugs, sometimes in the wrong house."