Forgive But Don’t Forget: Remembering Barbara Bush’s Complicated Relationship With Black America

UPDATED: 8:02 p.m. EST, April 17 — Former First Lady Barbra Bush has died, according to multiple reports. She was pronounced dead in Houston on Tuesday. She was 92 years old.

Hearing reports that 92-year-old former first lady Barbara Bush was near death wasn’t a good way for anybody to wake up on Sunday morning, as the loss of life, almost no matter who it happens to, is typically very sad. Bush has reportedly decided to stop seeking medical treatment for what’s widely been described as her “failing health.”

The pain associated with losing a loved one, especially a person who has lived more than nine decades, can have a devastating effect on any set of family, friends and fans. But similarly, the pain experienced by Black people in the wake of several instances of Bush’s tone-deaf commentary when it comes to race can also be tough to reconcile.

We’re not saying the wife of the 41st president was a racist; she just had apparent racist tendencies that showed she clearly left much to be desired when it came to the way she discussed racism in America.

Bush showcased her apparent indifference to the plight of Black women’s quest for legitimacy in the eyes of White America came when she expressed doubt, to put it mildly, over claims that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill. She appeared to victim-shame Hill while defending the man who her husband nominated to succeed Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Is this woman telling the truth?” Bush asked in her 1994 autobiography. “I do not mean to sit in judgment, but I will never believe that she, a Yale Law School graduate, a woman of the 80s, would put up with harassment for one moment, much less follow the harasser from job to job, call him when she came back to town and later invite him to speak to her students at Oral Roberts University.” She would go on to call Thomas “a good man” whose reputation had been wrongfully “smeared.”

She also wondered in “Barbara Bush: A Memoir” if a speech from Pat Buchanan, who ran against George H.W. Bush for the 1992 Republican presidential nomination, was “racist” or just “racial.” Considering Buchanan ran an “America first” campaign that was nearly identical to that of Donald Trump, it’s unclear how Bush could be confused about the nature of Buchanan’s words.

That apparent White sympathy seemed to also be on display in 2014, when she endorsed the campaign to re-elect Maine Gov. Paul Le Page. Bush supported him by appearing in a campaign ad two years before he called people of color “the enemy right now.”

Using a military analogy to justify his feelings of wanting to shoot drug offenders, Le Page said “the enemy right now… are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.” He continued: “When you go to war… and the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, then you shoot at red.” That comment came one year before he said “The NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle.”

But perhaps Bush’s greatest, or at least most infamous, racial faux pas came in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The deadly natural disaster affected millions of people, most of whom were Black. That fact was not lost on her when she told the media that how grateful the “underprivileged” Katrina victims should be for being displaced to Houston, where Bush has called home since leaving the White House in 1992.

“And so many of the people in the [Houston Astrodome] here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” Bush said. As if they would prefer to live in an arena-turned-homeless shelter instead of their own homes.

Black people are the most forgiving people in the history of humanity, so we will probably mourn Bush’s death with respect even though there is absolutely no excuse for the racism or discrimination she selectively paid attention to during her life. Lest we forget that she was still born into a world of exclusive White privilege nearly a century ago, even if it was in liberal New York City. To say that she was far removed from having any semblance of sympathy, empathy, or even any comprehensive understanding for and of the plight of Black people in America is a vast understatement.

She may have ultimately made strides in that department, notably by having a Black press secretary and recently by insistingthen-candidate Donald Trump was a racist and a sexist, but her commentary when it came to race was routinely uninformed and misguided at best. But, hey, as time has shown over and over, the undefeated combination of wealth and Whiteness will do that, now won’t it?