George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Saturday at age 94, had a complex and mixed record with Black America during his service as the 41st U.S. president from 1989-1993.
He promised his administration would be less oppressive for African Americans after eight years of Reaganism, arguably the most racist presidency since the Jim Crow era. Bush, a moderately conservative Republican and Ronald Reagan’s vice president, promised a “kinder, gentler” style of governing that suggested a retreat from mean-spirited rhetoric and policies of 1981-1989.
Yet Bush’s 1988 campaign for president was accused of making racist appeals. Campaign advertisements displayed images of the convicted rapist and murderer Willie Horton, a Black man released on parole by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent.
Bush was elected handily. In a 1990 deathbed confession, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater apologized for launching the racially inflammatory advertisements.
Bush chose Louis Sullivan of Morehouse College for the Health and Human Services Cabinet post. Months later in 1989, Gen. Colin Powell was promoted to commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a first for an African American.
By 1991, Condoleezza Rice appeared on America’s radar — the Black woman was Bush’s expert on Russia (the former Soviet Union) and nuclear arms control.
Bush’s rhetoric and gestures indeed were less hostile than Reagan’s had been, however he still pushed policies that a number of Black leaders said were harmful. Bush called a civil rights bill debated in Congress a “quota bill” even though the legislation forbade use of fixed numbers or percentages for affirmative action hiring. Congress passed the bill, but Bush vetoed it in 1990. In 1992, Bush signed a compromise civil rights bill. In 1990, Bush unsuccessfully attempted to place Black conservative William Lucas as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department.
Bush’s lasting decision was his nomination of Clarence Thomas in July 1991 to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, the first and at the time only African American on the high court.
Thomas was presented as a poor Black boy from Georgia who overcame poverty and discrimination to excel in America. Thomas was an undistinguished federal judge — appointed by Bush to the Court of Appeals in 1990 — and former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas’ nomination appeared secure until Anita Hill, a former EEOC employee, charged that Thomas sexually harassed her and that he was therefore unfit for the lifetime appointment. After bruising Senate confirmation hearings, Thomas was nevertheless elevated to the high court.
Black support in the old-time civil-rights community was deeply divided over Thomas. One side appealed for the addition of a Black, any Black, to the bench to replace the only one — Marshall — who as now departed. The other side argued that color was not good enough if the person’s ideas were harmful. Ever since his appointment, Thomas has been regarded as a reactionary, anti-civil rights justice.
Regarding foreign policy, Powell, Bush’s joint chief of the four military branches, was a confident and resolute leader, whether he was extracting the strongman Manuel Noriega from Panama or punishing Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi leader invaded Kuwait in late 1990 and allied forces retaliated in 1991. The first Iraq War lasted less than two months and resulted in minimal U.S. casualties.
Sullivan, Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary, campaigned successfully to ban Uptown cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s high-nicotine tobacco targeted to urban African-American consumers.
Bush’s last major challenge was managing the boatlift of thousands of Haitian refugees to South Florida. The Caribbean Blacks were intercepted by authorities and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base in Cuba. The Haitians said that they sought asylum from a murderous regime; the Bush administration insisted that the immigrants were economic refugees. Bush’s successor, Democrat Bill Clinton, inherited the problem and initially followed Bush’s policy.
Compared to the bizarre Trump World Americans live in now, George H.W. Bush memorialized seems angelic. Clear-eyed analysts reflexively note that the 41st president had a long, racially nuanced record: darts for the Clarence Thomas appointment and the Willie Horton smear campaign, laurels for elevating Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Louis Sullivan and others to key administration posts.
Overall, the modest patrician from Texas by way of New England fostered a kinder, gentler U.S. civic climate.
Dawkins is an associate professor at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.