BY Julie LaBagnara
“The film Fruitvale Station…depicts the death of an unarmed African American man, Oscar Grant, at the hands of police, and in it there is a scene in which Grant pulls a pit bull-type dog from the street where it has been fatally injured by a car and holds it as it dies. Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar Grant, states: ‘Black males, we are America’s pit bull. We’re labeled vicious, inhumane, and left to die in the street’” (Weaver 2015, p. 345).
Pit-bull Type Dogs (PBTD) have been described as weapons, criminals, and killers, traits frequently ascribed to poor urban men of color, specifically young Black and Latino men (Boisseron 2015). The animal welfare community, which is primarily dominated by upper- and middle-class White women, consists of moral entrepreneurs who try to rehabilitate the PBTD image by removing the dogs from poor people of color (Guenther 2019). The goal of these White “saviors”, however, is not clear. Ostensibly, the dogs are being removed from homes of people of color because they are not being well-cared for, but the dogs then overpopulate American shelters where many will be killed due to low adoption rates and misconceptions about the breed (https://www.aspca.org, 2017).
Dogs are associated with the physical and social characteristics of their owners. Stereotypes about owners inform stereotypes about their dogs and vice versa. Stereotypical middle- and upper-class “White” dogs, such as golden retrievers, French bulldogs, and other purebred dogs often receive social allowances that dogs associated with people of color do not. “White” dogs rank higher on the social hierarchy than people of color and are bestowed privileges equivalent to those White people receive, such as admission to certain restaurants, museums, and life in middle- and upper-class White communities (Parker 2019).
Dogs typically associated with people of color, such as Rottweilers, Doberman, and Pit Bulls are often categorized as dangerous and are prohibited from White spaces via litigious methods such as Dangerous Dog Laws (DDL) and Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) (Gunter, Barber, and Wynne 2016; Kovačič 2015; Patronek et al. 2008; Thompson et al. 2019). An important caveat has been established, though, as middle- and upper-class White people have become interested in rehabilitating the image of “dogs of color”, specifically PBTD. Dogs of color are less likely to be excluded from public spaces if they are accompanied by a White person. Guenther (2019) refers to this transformation of PBTD from threats to companions as “taking the ghetto out of the dog” (Guenther 2019, p. 7). Animal welfare, specifically PBTD rescue, is primarily dominated by White women. Therefore, the removal of dogs from the “ghetto” follows trajectories of human racism and classism. PBTD who are deemed adoptable by White women are taken from homes of color and rehabilitated according to the standards of Whiteness in the rescue community (Guenther 2019).
The predominantly White animal welfare community reproduces inequality in animal advocacy, perpetuating institutionalized racism. Furthermore, PBTD are taken away from, or not adopted to, poor families of color because the dogs are not treated according to ideals of Whiteness. By decentralizing Whiteness in animal advocacy, potential adopters, workers, and dogs would no longer be evaluated through a lens of Whiteness. By providing more available homes to PBTD by including families of color, fewer dogs will die in shelters and the strain on shelters due to overpopulation should lessen.
Stanley Cohen defined moral panics as conditions where something or someone is identified as a threat to the values of a society (Cohen 1973). Moral panics can arise from cultural, racial, or economic crises. Regarding race, moral panics often stem from longstanding racialized fears and stereotypes. Moral panics in the United States have fueled white supremacist ideals throughout history, manifesting in myriad ways such as the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal justice system and the violence inflicted on Black men by police (King 2015). In the context of race or class, moral panics arise from the fear that people of other classes and races threaten the status quo of the ruling class and race, middle- and upper-class White people (King 2015). Moral panics can have disastrous consequences for the groups targeted by the panic, and scenarios, people, or animals associated with the stigmatized group also become a source of panic. Often, activities associated with the feared group also become stigmatized. Examples include drugs, such as crack cocaine, and other illegal activities, such as dog fighting and animal abuse, being associated with poor people of color. Because of their association with young, urban Black men, PBTD also incite panic (Hallsworth 2011; Kaspersson 2008; Kovačič 2015; McCarthy 2016).
Class- and race-based narratives construct acceptable boundaries for animals in society. Leslie Irvine (2004) argues that animals and our feelings towards them are reflections of ourselves. Therefore, animals are derived from human-created social institutions and constructs. Animals are victims of the same systems of oppression as humans, namely race and class, hierarchies to which animal advocacy is not immune (Cudworth 2014). By decentering Whiteness in animal advocacy, in both practice and ideology, communities of color and “dogs of color” will benefit.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 2017.
https://www.aspca.org/about-us/press-releases/aspca-releases-new-data-showing remarkable-progress-homeless-dogs-cats. Accessed May 20, 2020.
Boisseron. 2015. “Afro-Dog.” Transition.
Cohen, Judy and John Richardson. 2002. “Pit Bull Panic.” The Journal of Popular Culture.
Cudworth, Erika. 2014. “Beyond Speciesism: Intersectionality, Critical Sociology and the Human Domination of Other Animals.” in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre.
Guenther, Katja M. 2019. “‘Taking the Ghetto out of the Dog:’ Reproducing Inequality in Pit Bull Rescue.” Ethnic and Racial Studies.
Hirschfield, Paul J. 2008. “The Declining Significance of Delinquent Labels in Disadvantaged Urban Communities.” Sociological Forum.
Irvine, Leslie. 2004. If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection with Animals.
King, Mike. 2015. “The ‘Knockout Game’: Moral Panic and the Politics of White Victimhood.” Race and Class.
Kovačič, Tanja. 2015. “How to Know Whether a Dog Is Dangerous: Myth, Superstition and Its Influence on the Human-Dog Relationship.” Ars & Humanitas.
Jerolmack, Colin. 2008. The Global Pigeon.
Kaspersson, M. 2008. “On Treating the Symptoms and Not the Cause.; Reflecdtions on the Dangerous Dogs Act.” in British Criminology Conference.
McCarthy, Daniel. 2016. “Dangerous Dogs, Dangerous Owners and the Waste Management of an ‘Irredeemable Species.’” Sociology.
Nast, Heidi J. 2006b. “Loving…. Whatever: Alienation, Neoliberalism and Pet-Love in the Twenty-First Century.” ACME.
Parker, Lynette. 2019. “Who Let the Dogs in? Antiblackness, Social Exclusion, and the Question of Who Is Human.” Journal of Black Studies.
Rios, Victor M. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.
Weaver, H. 2015. “Pit Bull Promises: Inhuman Intimacies and Queer Kinships in an Animal Shelter.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
3 responses to “It’s the Pits: The American Pit Bull Terrier, Race, and Society”
This is such an important topic and so rarely discussed in academic spaces! Thanks for sharing your research.
Connections Between Course Material and It’s the Pits
In her essay, It’s the Pits: The American Pit Bull Terrier, Race, and Society, Julie LaBagnara makes excellent observations about the ways that Pit Bull breed dogs have been stigmatized in society and how this relates to the stigmatization of people of color (particularly Black communities) and the way they care for dogs. LaBagnara asserts that society’s perception of Pit Bulls can be closely compared to society’s perception of poor men of color. Both are often thought of as dangerous. She examines the ways that different breeds are associated with different races and the discrimination this causes for certain dog breeds and the people commonly associated with them while emphasizing how the goals of animal rights advocacates may have been co-opted to achieve goals other than what they were primarily. LaBagnara discusses a new way to frame this issue – present an idea in a way that helps gain support of a particular group or community (Evans 2019) – by explaining that not adopting these dogs to poor families of color or removing them from homes where the level of care does not meet their standard may actually cause the dogs more harm since they are a breed whose adoption rates are low and they are often euthanized instead of adopted. Also, sheltering these dogs also uses up scarce resources in shelters. It should be noted that being taken from homes may also cause these dogs and those caring for them a significant amount of psychological distress as well, making adoption even less likely while causing further harm to poor people of color who are already put in harm’s way in many other aspects of society. By framing this as an issue that does more harm than good, LaBagnara appeals to the exact community wherein this issue lies: the animal welfare community.
What Julie LaBagnara mentions about laws that prohibit certain dog breeds from white spaces can be perceived as an intricate form of redlining. By denying rentals to people who commonly care for certain dog breeds like Pit Bulls, these people are also denied access to the benefits of these communities and may find it difficult to find a place that accepts Pit Bulls and be forced to take one that is not the best option for their dog or themselves. And, as LaBagnara mentions, Pit Bulls and other stigmatized breeds are less likely to be denied in white spaces if they are accompanied by a white person. In this way among others, we can also see this as a form of cooptation within animal advocacy since it seems that the original goals have been compromised to uphold the standards of a hierarchy within it. In The Political and Cultural Study of Animal Advocacy, Erin Evans discusses moral disengagement – “why people participate in activities they consider morally wrong” – and goes on to list some of the reasons people participate in this (Evans 2019). One of the reasons she lists is justification. In the minds of some animal advocates, dogs should be cared for in a certain way and their job is to ensure these dogs are properly cared for, so, to them, their actions are justified. What they may not be taking into consideration is who came up with the standards that determine how a dog should be cared for lest they be taken to a shelter or denied adoption.
LaBagnara’s claims are further supported by authors Eric Holt-Gimenez and Breeze Harper in their article in the series Dismantling Racism in the Food System when they state, “Racism … affects all aspects of our society, including our food system,” (Holt-Gimenez, Harper 2016). Animal advocacy is no exception to the affects of racism and is inherently tied to the food system so many of the claims in this article relate to those of LaBagnara. Holt-Gimenez and Harper discuss how institutional racism in the food system that roots back to colonial times is a form of structural violence that disproportionately affects people of color (Holt-Gimenez, Harper 2016). This can be compared to the harm that people of color and “dogs of color” experience based on society’s perspective of them which is largely due to standards set by a predominantly white animal welfare community.