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George H.W. Bush got elected president after a campaign marked by the infamous Willie Horton ad, about a black murderer who raped a white woman while on a weekend furlough from prison.
On the other side of the racial ledger, Bush appointed Gen. Colin Powell as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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And while Bush replaced civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall with another black man to maintain the racial status quo on the Supreme Court, he picked Clarence Thomas, a conservative whose views are at odds with those of much of black America.
Lionized upon his death as a man of decency and civility, Bush has a mixed and complicated legacy when it comes to race.
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“Intellectually and emotionally, he was somebody who was civil rights-minded,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “Bush wanted to see himself as being a man devoid of racism. But the reality is that Bush often had to do dog whistles and appeal to less enlightened Americans on race.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson summed up the 41st president’s record this way: “He was a fundamentally fair man. He didn’t block any door. He was never a demagogue on the question of race.”
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Bush, who died Friday at 94, had a political career that spanned decades and straddled the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement and its aftermath.
To many black Americans, the Willie Horton ad is an indelible stain on his reputation.
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The TV spot about the Massachusetts inmate was produced by Bush supporters during his 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. It was widely condemned as racist and is regarded three decades later as one of the most extreme attack ads in modern political history.
The Bush campaign disavowed the ad at the time, but Bush’s chief strategist, Lee Atwater, exploited its message to paint Dukakis...
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