Sen. Ted Cruz said Wednesday that President Obama has aggravated racial tensions around the country rather than unifying the nation.
"President Obama, when he was elected, he could have been a unifying figure. He could have chosen to be a leader on race relations," Cruz said at a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event in Washington. "And he hasn’t done that. He’s made decisions that I think have inflamed racial tensions. That have divided us rather than bringing us together."
Cruz cited a comment made by Vice President Joe Biden, who told a crowd in Virginia that Mitt Romney's proposed policies would put people "back in chains."
The Texas Republican was asked about race relations in the U.S. after days of protests, which turned violent Monday night, in Baltimore. People took to the streets after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a severe spinal injury April 19 while in police custody.
Cruz said the situation in Baltimore is "heartbreaking" and that Gray's death must be "investigated fairly and impartially" to determine what happened.
"There’s no doubt that there are real and meaningful racial tensions," Cruz said. "And you’re seeing a city right now that is afraid, that children can’t go to school, that men and women are afraid to live their lives."
He said that the "vilification" of law enforcement has been "fundamentally wrong."
"It is not beneficial to minority communities to vilify and target law enforcement," Cruz said.
Cruz called for reform of the criminal justice system, noting that he co-sponsored a bill to reducing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and saying that there are "far too many young African-American men" sentenced to life in prison. When asked how he would specifically repair racial tensions, Cruz offered few specifics.
"A combination of things, number one, most importantly, when it comes to tone and language and rhetoric," he said. "Not have the president inflaming racial tensions. Rather, have the president working to appeal to our shared values," he said, which are jobs and economic opportunity.
Cruz spoke for more than an hour at the Chamber event in Washington. He touched on immigration reform, saying that the borders must be secured before dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and that he supports legal immigration.
Cruz framed many of his positions -- opposition to same-sex marriage, fiscal responsibility and entrepreneurship -- as ones that are prevalent in the Hispanic community.
"In my view I think the Hispanic community is a fundamentally conservative community," he said. "If you look at the values that resonate in our community they are faith, family, patriotism" and hard work, he said.
Cruz, relating a story he's told before, recalled having lunch with a Hispanic businessman in Texas who asked Cruz when he last saw a Hispanic panhandler.
"It’s a great question. You and I grew up in Texas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hispanic panhandler, and the reason is, in our community it would be shameful to be begging on the street," Cruz said.
Abby Livingston contributed reporting to this report. Tanni Deb contributed video.