Racism and the American Pit Bull

The fear of certain breeds of dogs mirrors the fear of certain people…

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Ceecil and Harambe. The names circulate in the public consciousness like those of beloved celebrity icons or fallen heroes, or street names evoking particular histories that we might be in danger of forgetting.

Cecil the lion was named after Cecil Rhodes, one of the most brutally racist imperialists ever to roam the planet. In July of 2015, Cecil was lured away from Zimbabwe’s Hwange Game Reserve and shot for sport by Walter James Palmer, an American dentist and hunting enthusiast. International outrage over Cecil’s death was instant and long-lasting, resulting in the creation of laws banning or curtailing trophy game hunting.

Harambe was a 17-year old lowland gorilla, also born and raised in captivity. He was shot to death by zookeepers in May 2016 when a three-year-old wandered into his enclosure. The gorilla had supposedly showed signs that he might prove harmful to the child, after dragging the boy through the water. The shooting provoked a public furor; a petition signed by over 500,000 insisted that the child’s family be prosecuted for negligence.

When such deaths and stories publicly erupt, they reveal more about the place of animals in human social relations than they do about the actual animals themselves. The culture relentlessly anthropomorphizes them, granting them names and imbuing them with human qualities in order to render them more sympathetic, more deserving of our attention and sympathy.

But such love for animals is profoundly selective. Only certain classes of relatable animals, ones bearing endearing names, are empathized with. Consider, in contrast, the fate of countless and nameless pit bulls.

Pit bulls have long been the bogey dogs of America, subject to harassment and torture because of the unwarranted fears about them. Few breeds have been as demonized, though a persistent public relations effort on the part of pit bulls’ fervent supporters may slowly be causing a shift in the tide of opinion. Pit bulls even continue to be exterminated as part of pre-emptive measures designed to protect the public. Bronwyn Dickey’s new book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, reproduces a photograph of pit bulls euthanized in Kansas. There are no names attached to the photograph, no individual dogs here, only a dogpile, a small mountain of canine carcasses seemingly thrown casually atop one another, heads and paws facing in different directions.

The laws surrounding pit bulls are as vicious as the dogs’ supposed reputation. Out of all breeds, pit bulls are the most likely to be subject to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and they have been cruelly and mercilessly killed by irate neighbors and police. American police have become notorious for their practice of routinely executing dogs when entering houses under search warrants, and an inner-city pit bull owner cannot expect to see their dog survive any such encounter with police. There are few legal remedies available when police shoot dogs, and the Internet is full of disturbing, heartbreaking testimonies from bereaved owners who have seen their pets gunned down before their eyes.

Importantly, there is no such thing as a pit bull “breed” to begin with. There are several different breeds of dogs that are broadly defined as such, including the English bulldog, a short-legged, slobbering animal that was once literally bred to fight and corral bulls but is now light years away from its long-legged, active ancestor. No one could possibly look at a contemporary bulldog and imagine it as a vicious hunter. (These days they give off more of an “asthmatic Winston Churchill” vibe.)

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One of the most prominent myths about pit bulls is that they have special locking jaws and that, once they’ve sunk their teeth into flesh, they cannot be dislodged without either thrusting a rod between their teeth or killing them. This is not the case, as can be deduced by both common sense and a glance at the skull of any pit bull. Another myth is that these demon jaws can exert pressure up to 740 pounds of pressure per square inch. This, too, is false.

As a result of such attitudes, pit bulls can essentially be hunted down at will, and their owners suffer from various forms of stigma. BSL means that people with pit bulls or other dogs defined as dangerous breeds cannot rent in many neighborhoods and are compelled to find housing in poorer and often more precarious areas. In 2012, a Maryland court ruled that pit bulls, unlike other dogs, were “inherently” dangerous, thus increasing the owners’ liability for their acts. (The court’s decision was later undone by the state legislature.)

It wasn’t always like this. Fans of vintage television may be familiar with Pete the Pup, the pit bull with a ring around his right eye who became a star on the show Little Rascals. Then there was “Stubby” (widely held to be a pit bull), who served with the Twenty-Sixth Yankee Division and played an active role with American troops as they traveled to fight alongside the French in 1917. Stubby even reportedly “took” his own German prisoner of war.

Dickey’s book explores how the pit bull went from being a beloved American icon to a much despised demon dog, subject to extermination at will. The shift in attitudes towards pit bulls reveals much about American society. Dickey’s assiduously researched book takes us through the creation of the breed, from its earlier place as a stalwart companion to war heroes (and, indeed, even as a war hero itself), through the 19th century when they were deployed in New York City’s notorious dog fighting rings.

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In the 20th century, the 1970s witnessed the swift and precipitous decline of modern cities. As America’s urban areas struggled, poorer residents, often Latino and Black, came to depend on pit bulls, which were an affordable means of receiving protection and companionship.

The media vilification of pit bulls soon followed. Dickey suggests that the creation of the 24-hours news cycle, inaugurated by CNN in 1980, represented a turning point. The rise of cable television created a salacious interest in “ghetto” and “thug” stories, and the news networks loved to report on the viciousness of urban “animals” both canine and human. A July 1987 Sports Illustrated story about pit bulls featured a cover illustration of the dog snarling, open-mouthed, with fangs on full display. The title in large print and all caps: “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.” During this time, at the height of the Drug War, the media similarly stigmatized Latino and Black men. They were treated as toxic carriers of drug addiction and social dysfunction, much as rats and other animals have been cast as sources of disease.

The link made between savage beasts or dangerous animals and black humans is as old as the history of enslavement. As the actor Michael B. Jordan memorably phrased it: “Black males, we are America’s pit bull. We’re labeled vicious, inhumane, and left to die on the street.” (Jordan made the comment in a promotional interview for the film Fruitvale Station, in which he played Oscar Grant. Grant was an Oakland resident fatally shot by transit police, in a killing that anti-police brutality activists have described as an execution, and proof that black lives in America are treated as expendable.)

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The history of relations between African Americans and dogs is complex. On plantations, dogs were trained to track and hunt runaway slaves, a practice that continued in the Southern use of police dogs against civil rights activists. Yet slaves also forged loving relationships with the animals. Dickey writes about Charles Ball, a slave “who escaped from a South Carolina plantation around 1812” and for whom “the love of a dog provided the only sense of comfort he knew.” Ball named his beloved dog Trueman but had to leave him behind during his final escape, knowing that the dog’s bark might give him away. In a poignant section of his memoirs, he wrote, “I recollected that he had always been ready to lay down his life for me; that when I was tied and bound to the tree to be whipped, they were forced to compel me to order my dog to be quiet, to prevent him from attacking my executioner in my defense.”

But one cannot tell the story of relations between African Americans and animals without noting the ways in which black people have been consistently dehumanized themselves. In a slave economy, Africans were treated not just as exploited labor, but as display items, suitable for zoos. Their bodies were presented as evidence that they were closer to baser animals like apes. Hundreds of year of racial pseudoscience, which lasted long after slavery’s abolition, offered supposed proof that they were less evolved than their white rulers and owners.

Black people were quite literally exhibited as curios and specimens. The most notorious example may be that of Saartje Baartman, born in South Africa in 1789 and sold in her twenties to two white men who took her around the world and put her on public view. They forced her to endure throngs of crowds who came to see and even poke the “Hottentot Venus,” endowed with larger buttocks and, so the rumor went, a more extensive labia than white women. Baartmen would die penniless in Paris only a few years later, and her genitals, brain, and skeleton could be viewed in the Museum of Man till the 1970s. Her remains were only returned to her homeland and buried in 2002.

Baartman was no anomaly. Dickey recounts the story of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga who, in 1906, was exhibited alongside an orangutan trained to do tricks in the Bronx Zoo. The New York Times weighed in that Benga was part of “a race that scientists do not rate high on the human scale” adding that “it is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply.” Desperate and unable to return to his home, Benga committed suicide in 1916.

Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution were used to further dehumanize entire races of people, put on display or discussed, as Baartman and Benga were, as proof of “living links” between apes and men.

That dehumanization, the belief that black, brown, and other non-white people are lesser beings, persists today, especially evident in the continuing series of police brutality incidents that break out with depressing regularity in the United States. When Rodney King was beaten almost to death in Los Angeles, police officers told of their fear that he was under the effects of Phencyclidine (PCP). The same justification was heard in Chicago after the police killing of Laquan MacDonald, a 17-year-old shot sixteen times while walking down the street. Since MacDonald had drugs in his system, he had become that deadliest of creatures, the frenzied black male, capable of anything. In public discourse, a black man killed by police is inevitably cited or described as someone possessed by PCP, and thus possessed by forces beyond his control, forces which make him so lethal that only death will quell the danger to those around him.

We might recall the myth of pit bulls and their interlocking jaws.

The links between “animality” and race have always been vividly present even if never explicitly discussed. The concepts of breed, blood, and race have served to determine what constitutes the human, the non-human, and the purported differences between the two. Dickey traces the history of the concept of “breed”:

…how we think about breed and how we think about race inform each other, even though we may not always realize it. The very word ‘race’ comes from the world of dogs, in fact. It was first coined in medieval France, where hunters and falconers classed their animals according to function, like the English, but also according to “nobility,” in a quasi-caste system. The hounds belonging to French royalty were placed in the “highest” race, and the common guard dog belonged to the “lowest.” For several hundred years thereafter, writers across Europe referred to races, rather than breeds, of dog. This was transposed onto humans sometime during the Enlightenment as naturalists, most notably Buffon and Linnaeus, expanded their taxonomies.

The notions surrounding classification made it easy to attest that the “race” of pit bulls was inherently unstable, with persistent breed characteristics that can never diminish. To a degree, of course, dogs can be bred to indicate some characteristics more than others. Australian shepherd dogs will herd their humans if they’re not put to work in actual fields. But as Dickey shows in an entire chapter devoted to the issue, a “breed” has to be carefully maintained—its defining features can literally disappear in the matter of just a few generations of puppies. And, as the animal theorist Colin Dayan points out, “There is no pit bull gene for danger.”

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In fact, Dickey’s research indicates that most of the animals supposedly involved vicious killings or injuries were not even actual pit bulls. Instead, the simple fact of an attack caused the animal to be identified as a pit bull, with even Golden Retrievers labeled as such. In the tautology established around pit bulls, all pit bulls are dangerous dogs and all dangerous dogs are pit bulls.

African Americans are subjected to the same axiomatic reasoning, even though the races of humans are just as indeterminate. Racial categories are a fluid mess, impossible to define with any precision. But the scientific reality, that race is far more social than biological, has done nothing to prevent confident pronouncements on the essential characteristics of racial groups. And it has certainly never kept African American men from being treated as a dangerous breed, in need of locking up.

The racist attitude connecting dogs and African Americans was never clearer than in the case of Michael Vick. 2007 saw the explosive revelation that Vick, star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, had been running a dogfighting ring out of his home in Virginia. The news shocked and horrified his fans and the general public. Reports emerged that several dogs from his “Bad Newz Kennels” had been “drowned, hanged, electrocuted, and beaten to death in addition to the daily pain and suffering they experienced as victims of dogfighting.” Vick himself had killed several of them.

Vick served twenty-three months of a three-year sentence, and after his release faced a massive public backlash. He found himself a pariah. No matter how many apologies Vick delivered, scant forgiveness was on display.

But as Dickey points out, none of the athlete’s public denouncers seemed to recall that in 1969, Doug Atkins, the white defensive end of the Saints, openly admitted to using his pit bull Rebel in dogfights. Atkins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

Vick, by contrast with Atkins, was not just denounced, but was relentlessly dehumanized. Dickey writes:

Critics called for Vick to be ‘neutered,’ electrocuted, or torn apart by dogs. Cartoonists portrayed him as an animal. PETA demanded that he receive a brain scan to test for possibly psychopathy before being allowed to return to football. Threats were made against Vick’s family members, specifically his children. In 2010, the conservative television commentator Tucker Carlson said, ‘I’m a Christian, I’ve made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances, but Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did [it] in a heartless and cruel way. And I think personally he should have been executed for that. He wasn’t.’

The brutal language used to denounce Vick was widespread, legitimized by the fact that it was in defense of dogs. As Jane Berkey, founder of the Animal Farm Foundation put it to Dickey, “Finally, the public hated something worse than it hated pit bulls, and that was Michael Vick.”

Ironically, the Vick revelations created a massive turnaround in the public perception of pit bulls. Vick was ordered to pay $1 million for the long-term care of forty-nine dogs seized from his property. Eventually, according to reports, all but two were accepted by shelters and homes around the country, and they were referred to as the “Vicktory Dogs.” Sports Illustrated ran a story about the dogs, featuring one of the rescued animals on the cover.

Today, after a massive public relations campaign waged by Berkey and others, pit bulls are attaining a nearly mythic image, one completely opposite to their former reputation. They have been termed “nanny dogs” for their temperament and ability to get along with children. On its website, the online resource site Pit Bull Rescue Central lists figures like Helen Keller and Fred Astaire as notable owners of the dogs. All of the famous owners on the list are white. The implication is simple: Who is the typical pit bull owner? Not Michael Vick. The pit bull’s redemption in the public mind directly coincided with its transition from a dangerous “black” dog to a lovable “white” dog. Michael Vick, by contrast, was an animal and a savage, who deserved to be put down.

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Dickey is relentless in exposing the brutal racism and classism at the heart of the pit bull scare. For that reason alone, her book is an invaluable resource for those who want and need a counter-narrative to the usual stereotyping of animals. Pit Bull is an important study of how one animal and its context can reveal everything about the link between race, class, and “animality.”

Yet, as much as it presents necessary histories and analyses, Pit Bull works less as a book than a collection of usually interesting essays. Dickey is clearly a superb journalist, but there’s a difference between writing a series of journalistic pieces and writing a unified book on a theme. As a monograph on pit bulls, this work lacks an animating principle and often lags in tempo. Dickey is often too caught up in her factual reporting to keep her eye on the larger coherence of the book.

To her credit, Dickey does not take the easy way out by concluding her book with details on happy pit bull owners. Instead, she focuses on organizations like Pets for Life, which provides pet care supplies and veterinary services to those who cannot afford to keep their dogs, even though they depend on their animals as a lifeline of love and support. Rather than romanticizing pit bulls as “nanny dogs” in accordance with the current trend, Dickey writes simply that:

They are no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn’t cause society’s ills, nor can their redemption—real or imagined—solve them….More important, there never was a ‘pit bull problem.’ What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared was one another.

Meanwhile, the question of race flies to the surface every time animals return to public discussion. The death of Harambe, the lowland mountain gorilla, provoked an outcry against the child’s family that was distinctly racialized. Media reports demonized the African American family of the child, focusing on the father’s previous history with drugs. Some argued that the mother’s irresponsibility proved that all her other children were being neglected at home. Over 500,000 petitioners insisted that, surely, the mother’s behavior was negligent, and that she should face criminal charges. (Apparently none of the petitioners had ever actually lived with toddlers; preventing a truly determined preschooler from clambering into the gorilla enclosure would require superhuman vigilance.)

About a month later, a white two-year-old, Lane Graves, waded into waters at Orlando’s Walt Disney and, while his horrified parents tried to save him, was drowned by an alligator who made off with the body (it was eventually recovered). In that case, there was never any question of the parents having charges filed against them for negligence. Instead, the nation mourned. Five alligators were killed in the hunt for the one that had drowned the child. But no Facebook groups sprang up to pay tribute to the alligators.

The impulse to quickly separate black parents from their children in order to provide them with supposedly better homes has historical roots, as Dorothy Robertson demonstrates in her book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Robertson critiques the foster care system that has consistently wrested black children away from their parents and funneled them towards white adoptive or foster parents. In an eerie echo of this process, pit bull and animal owners left bereft by Katrina, many of whom refused to leave their pets in the face of disaster, watched as animal rescue organizations swooped in and took away their beloved companions. Attorney Steve Wise, quoted by Dickey, put it bluntly: “The message is, ‘You’re poor, and we can take care of these dogs a lot better than you can.’” It doesn’t take much to stir up the public perception that African Americans are irresponsible and uncivilized.

Of course, there are other explanations for the differing treatment of Harambe’s death versus that of the alligators. One is simply that alligators, lacking in any cuddly features, rank lower than gorillas on the likeability scale for humans. But Harambe’s death and the outrage that surrounded it also reflected a difference between the value placed on animal lives versus black lives. Once, apes were seen as contiguous to Africans and other non-white people, hence the placement of the orangutan next to Ota Benga. But apes are now anthropomorphized, and many would rather have seen the child die than the gorilla.

Contrary to previous mythology, apes are no longer signifiers of blackness. They are treated with compassion and dignity, recognized for their intelligence and sophistication. Yet no such transformation has occurred in the treatment of race for humans. Black bodies are still shot at will and caged by the hundreds of thousands. Black people continue to be treated as animals even as animals have become human.

The redemption of the pit bull shows that animals have finally transcended race. It is only black humans who must continue to bear its burden.

Author: Yasmin Nair

is a writer, academic, and activist in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST.