'How do we end systemic racism?': George W. Bush says George Floyd's death reveals America's 'tragic failures'

William Cummings, USA TODAY

Former President George W. Bush called Tuesday for peace and empathy after the "brutal suffocation" of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody last week, and declared it was "time for America to examine our tragic failures." 

In a rare public statement, Bush said he and former first lady Laura Bush were "anguished" by Floyd's death and "disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country." 

Bush said they had "resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen." 

"It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country," Bush said.

Protests have been held around the country in response to Floyd's death and have turned violent in many cities. In some instances, police responded with tear gas and pepper spray even as some governors and mayors faced criticism for not responding more forcefully. 

President Donald Trump called governors "weak" and pushed for those facing unrest to use the National Guard and "dominate the streets." Monday, law enforcement drove peaceful protesters out of the area around the White House before the city's curfew began, so the president could cross the street to St. John's Episcopal Church to pose for photos. 

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Bush, who has been critical of Trump, did not mention the president by name, but said, "The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America – or how it becomes a better place." 

The 43rd president said it is a "strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future." He said, "Lasting justice will only come by peaceful means." 

"Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress," Bush said. "But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice." 

Bush said Floyd's death follows a "long series of similar tragedies" and "raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society?"

"America's greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity," he said. "The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union." 

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Bush pointed to the "disturbing bigotry and exploitation" of U.S. history – "stains on our character sometimes difficult for the American majority to examine" – and said, "We can only see the reality of America's need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, the oppressed and disenfranchised. 

"Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions." 

The former Republican president's acknowledgement of systemic racism and inequality stood in contrast to Trump. The president has called Floyd's death a "grave tragedy," and the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation in the case. But he lays the blame on the "small handful" of Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd's death, and critics have faulted him for not addressing it as a symptom of broader problem of racial inequality

"I don't think there's systemic racism," national security adviser Robert O'Brien said during a CNN interview Sunday. "There's no doubt that there's some racist police. I think they're the minority. I think they're the few bad apples. And we need to root them out." 

Trump has not responded to Bush's statement. When Bush issued a similar call for unity in response to the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the president tore into Bush, though Bush never mentioned Trump by name. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd: George W. Bush 'anguished by the brutal suffocation'