George H.W. Bush leaves mixed record on race, civil rights


A look back at the life and legacy of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush who died on November 30th.

Early in George H.W. Bush’s political career, when he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, he came out against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, deriding his opponent as “radical” for supporting the bill that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination.

“The new civil-rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people,” he said. “I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.”

The stand seemed at odds with his family’s long history of supporting civil rights (his father, Prescott Bush, a Connecticut senator had worked to desegregate schools and protect voting rights) and with his own work raising money for the United Negro College Fund.

But in Texas, where the Republican party was steadily becoming more conservative and embracing the Southern Strategy of appealing to white voters, Bush’s position made sense.

He would later regret opposing the groundbreaking bill, even apologizing to his pastor, according to historian Timothy Naftali, author of “George H. W. Bush: The American Presidents Series.”

“He came from the northern Republican tradition, which was moderate and somewhat progressive on race at the time,” Naftali said. “But George Bush sometimes chose expediency in his campaigning. He didn’t always have the courage of his convictions as a candidates, but more often than not, he had the courage of his convictions in office.”

As a freshman Congressman from Texas, Bush joined a group of moderate Republicans to support civil rights legislation and voted in favor of the 1968 Fair Housing Act — a move that did not sit well with his conservative constituents back home.

Still, said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94, was often torn between the “the right thing to do versus the political thing to do.”

In his 1988 bid for the presidency, Bush would seem to again opt for expediency in a campaign that is often cited as one of the nastiest in political memory, with the blatant racism of the Willie Horton ad, which mined ugly stereotypes of African-Americans, and for Bush’s questioning of the patriotism of his opponent, Michael Dukakis, because of his Greek heritage.

The Horton ad, which focused on a convicted murderer who committed a violent rape while out of prison on a furlough program Dukakis had supported, was put out by a conservative PAC, not the Bush campaign. However, Bush repeatedly brought up Horton’s name in speeches, including one to the National Sheriffs’ Association.

“Horton applied for a furlough,” Bush said at the time. “He was given the furlough. He was released. And he fled — only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman.”

The Bush campaign also released an ad that showed footage of prisoners going through a revolving door — a strategy that played on white voters’ fears and prejudices, said Jason Johnson, a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

At the time, Susan Estrich, Dukakis’ campaign manager, accused the Bush campaign of stoking racial tensions. ‘If you were going to run a campaign of fear and smear and appeal to racial hatred,” she told The New York Times, “you could not have picked a better case to use than this one.”

The Horton ad also helped squelch the conversation on criminal justice reform, which was then in its incipient stages, Johnson said. “It racialized and demonized black people.”

As president, Bush’s actions often called into question his stands on race and civil rights, said Johnson.

“It’s fair and reasonable to critique everything we can about George Bush,” said Johnson. “We can say he was horrendous on civil rights, but that he was a good father and treated people decently.”

In 1990, Bush vetoed a Civil Rights Act that would have expanded job protections, becoming the only president, other than Ronald Reagan, to veto a civil rights measure since the start of the civil rights era. Bush said the bill would have introduced the “destructive force of quotas into our national employment system.”

The move garnered criticism from civil rights leaders and progressives, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) who said the veto showed that Bush was “more interested in appeasing extremists in his party than in providing simple justice.”

“It was not a good look to be vetoing a civil rights bill when you are trying to offer a kinder, gentler version of Reagan,” said Greenberg, who noted that the backlash led Bush to work on a compromise bill, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, which passed the following year.

However, Bush’s most lasting legacy in race relations may stem from his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his role in escalating the war on drugs.

By selecting the conservative Thomas, an ardent opponent of affirmative action, to replace Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice who championed equal rights and challenged discrimination, Bush stalled or set back progress in civil rights issues for decades, said Johnson, who likened the choice to “trolling.”

Bush has also been criticized for his role in the war on drugs, which began in the Reagan administration and carried on into the Clinton years, and led directly to the mass incarceration of many African-American men.

In his first significant policy speech as president, on Sept. 5, 1989, Bush chose to focus on drug policy and the cocaine epidemic. Sitting in the Oval Office, Bush lifted up a plastic bag.

“This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement Agents in a park just across the street from the White House,” he said. “It could easily have been heroin or PCP. It’s as innocent looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children.”

He went on to call for a $1.5 billion increase in drug-related federal spending to law enforcement and to “enlarge our criminal justice system across the board, at the local, state, and federal levels alike. We need more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors.”

That approach, along with the mandatory minimum sentences passed under Reagan, contributed to the so-called 100-to-1 drug sentencing discrepancy, in which the penalty for crack possession and sale was 100 times greater than that for cocaine, said Joshua Clark Davis, a University of Baltimore history professor.

The speech was notable not only for its substance, but because the crack sale mentioned by Bush had actually been set up by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Agents manipulated a 19-year-old high school student, a low-level dealer, into conducting a sale near the White House.

Keith Jackson, who did not know where the White House was and had to be given directions, was later arrested and sentenced to 10 years for another unrelated sale, after the first two juries deadlocked.

In a tweet posted on Dec. 1, Davis noted: “It’s what his War on Drugs did to just one person. But it shows the human costs of that war in miniature detail. A high schooler was lured to the WH to sell crack and spent 7+ years in prison, so that the President could make a point on TV.”

Even the judge in the case pointed out that Jackson, who had no prior criminal record, had been used as a prop. He urged Jackson to ask Bush for a commutation.

“He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech,” said Sporkin, a Reagan appointee. “But he’s a decent man, a man of great compassion. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence.”

But Bush, referring to Jackson as “this drug guy,” told reporters: “I cannot feel sorry for him. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.”

He left office without commuting Jackson’s sentence.

Follow Monica Rhor on Twitter: @monicarhor

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