It’s the Pits: The American Pit Bull Terrier, Race, and Society

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.

 

References

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues

2 responses to “It’s the Pits: The American Pit Bull Terrier, Race, and Society

  1. Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

    This is such an important topic and so rarely discussed in academic spaces! Thanks for sharing your research.

    Like

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