Pit Bulls and Racism in America

26322011563_040e92253fNothing gets me excited like intelligent, thorough, exhaustively researched, well written and simply explained material.  By all accounts, that’s what we will be getting with Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.  But from the interviews, reviews and excerpts I’ve read, one thing in particular has me eagerly awaiting this read:

“[Dickey] repeatedly draws parallels between treatment of poor and disenfranchised humans and their dogs, and it’s damning testimony.” — BookPage

When you are immersed in the “pit bull issue,” it doesn’t take long to go deeper than the public safety visage and start see that there is no way to separate the treatment of and attitude toward pit bulls from the group of people who are perceived to be their owners.  And because we are creatures of habit, one starts to see the same bias, the same sensationalist fear mongering, the same logical fallacies, and the same mistakes of critical thinking.  Simply put: we fear and hate the same.

I am not one who subscribes to or supports the idea of “doggie racism.”  While bias and bigotry are words that can have a wide application, racism holds a special, notorious place in American history and culture.  Only racism is racism.  Also, in its earliest iterations, cries of “doggie racism” felt dirty and dishonest – to me. It didn’t feel like an attempt to connect and to empathize, it felt like a way to hijack, usurp and manipulate – to me. It felt disingenuous – to me.  But the connections and parallels are there and I want to push past the broad strokes and show just exactly how close these two apparently disparate areas of our society can parallel each other and how they can be an important window for those of us who don’t experience these things just because of who we are or the way we look.

There are disturbingly similar examples of specific ways we have pretended to use science to hate and masked our bigotry in logical fallacies that seem to make sense at first glance. Ways that are eerily similar to the way we have treated African Americans and more specifically African American males.  We sure didn’t invent new ways to hate and new ways to judge just because this time the targets were pit bull dogs. Selling these dysfunctional processes as “necessary to public safety” isn’t even a new thing.  It’s the same old us with the same old failings, falling prey to the same old tripe and ignoring the impact it has on the same old casualties.  Society and policymakers just went with what they knew, but tried to call it something else. The way we as society classify “those” dogs, the methods, the language, the attempts to vilify and take away their “dog-ness” are exactly the same. We stuck to what we knew, it’s just this time instead of doing it to “them,” we did it to “their” dogs.

And to say it is rooted in the same hate and fear and bigotry but projected onto dogs only tells half the story. Breed specific bias is a literal and direct descendant of racial eugenics. Same methods, same reasoning, same lies. But it isn’t just failed racist ideas projected onto dogs, it is a refocus on to dogs as a way to continue to discriminate against people. It is still class and race bigotry, except now it is code speak for policymakers – “those thugs with their dogs.”

The core of this idea has been at the heart of my work with dogs for many years.  As I searched through the world of pit bull advocacy and rescue a decade ago, I struggled to find anyone who put the right kind and amount of focus on the human side of the “pit bull issue.”  The most consideration humans were given at that time were as the party who should be held responsible “at the other end of the leash.” But I saw the “other end of the leash” as the target and the victim, not just a potential problem. This lead directly to the founding of Game Dog Guardian where I felt I could explore the idea that most or all of the “pit bull issue” was really about people and about the social, economic and class issues that permeate American culture.  And that if dogs and the human-canine bond could be a lens into some of our darker failings with each other, maybe they could help people connect, and they could become a bridge to our finest moments, both within ourselves and between each other and our dogs.


Sadly, these parallels are vast and tragic. The easiest to draw is the very obvious role that our history of eugenics plays in how we determine what a pit bull is and how it is we came to believe that we could use visual markers to identify the genetic makeup of an individual within a group and that our supposed visual identification of those genetic traits or composition enables us to make determinations about that individual’s behavior or certain propensities toward success, failure or aggression – among other things. We didn’t just make that up for dogs; that started with people.

26892337426_329e170ab8_zSome of the tests are merely similar. Where an observer might look at coat length or chest size to visually determine “pit bull-ness,” in the past people used the paper bag test or the pencil test to visually determine “blackness.”  But some of the visual tests are literally the same, specifically, measuring of skull size.  While one could make a reasonable argument that measuring the size of a canine skull could be used to help determine bite force, in this case measuring the skull is purported to be a way to determine the predominance of “pit bull-ness,” and thus a predictor of behavior and propensity toward violence and aggression, just as the measure of skull size and shape was held out to prove lower intelligence and tendencies towards violence based on race.  But with these processes we are only looking for flaws and weaknesses.  We don’t measure white heads to determine who is the whitest and we don’t measure Golden Retriever heads to determine which will be the safest with our kids.  We can only imagine negatives with this calculated fabrication.

26320603914_c5d455a0e6_zOur most recent efforts to move past visual markers for genetic makeup and toward actual genetic testing, only undoes half of the pseudo science.  Even if there is a more accurate way to determine race or breed, it still leaves in place the underlying reason that there is a need to determine proportions in the first place and that doing so is somehow predictive of that individual’s behavior and tendencies toward violence.  What we’re left with is cities that allow genetic testing to determine if a dog is “predominantly” a pit bull and thus its behavior and dangerousness and worthiness to stay in our society and with its family.  And if you have studied the history of eugenics in this country and you’ve seen those genetic composition printouts for dogs, and you’ve seen if a dog is 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 or 100% pit bull it’s difficult not to think of words like octoroon and quadroon.


Even the way we think about and name breed mixes traces its roots back to the way we think about and label race.  When a city creates an ordinance that bans “pit bulls” it includes the language “and any mix thereof.”  This is because any dog mixed with a pit bull is a pit bull.  A lab/pit bull mix is a “pit bull.”  Golden Retriever/pit bull mix?  “Pit bull.”  This tendency to label a mixed breed dog like this comes from the practice of Hypodescent.

“In societies that regard some races of people as dominant or superior and others as subordinate or inferior, hypodescent is the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union or mating between members of different socioeconomic groups or ethnic groups to the subordinate group.”

In America, children of a white mother and a black father are considered black, even though both races are equally represented in the children.  Our culture has an extreme practice of hypodescent embodied in the “one drop rule,” where any amount, or “one drop” of sub-Saharan African blood means the person is black.  The (according to racists) “superior,” white blood has been tainted and thus the person of mixed race cannot rise to the highest level and is assigned the “subordinate” race.  When a normal, ordinary and trusted breed of dog is mixed with a pit bull in any way, its “trusted” dog blood has been tainted and we can never fully trust that dog not to exhibit “pit bull behaviors.” Thus that dog cannot rise to the highest level and must be assigned to the “lower” breed.

People of color, and particularly young men of color are often scape-goated as social boogie men.  We spared no time in giving the same treatment to the dogs we associate with young men of color. It is so easy for us to transfer these ways of thinking from people to dogs because once we determine that one is somehow inferior to the rest, we set about to separate them from groups to rationalize to ourselves and to each other how and why the inferior should be treated differently and less-than. Breed specific ordinances label and separate the inferior breeds from the others, ban them from a city, and with only the pure, trustworthy specimens left everyone will be safe…


We used the conjured “black male super predator” throughout history for both laws and to justify our unspoken rules and biases.  Dr. Kelly Hoffman is the co-author of a study “researching white perceptions of black physicality as ‘superhuman.'”  She points out that assigning super-human abilities to black people is “a different way that we can look at blacks as other than human that doesn’t seem as nasty.”  But it does have very real and very negative consequences.  This “super-human black” myth results in people perceiving that black people feel less pain, and if black people are perceived to be super strong then they are more likely to be viewed as a threat which can be a contributing factor in an increased likelihood to be shot in an encounter with police.

15954592543_21e3d17019_oIt is difficult to count all the different ways pit bulls have been credited with super strength: Locking jaws, 2000+ lb per square inch bite force, bullet proof skulls, the inability to feel pain – the amazing feats are many. This ultra-threat status is necessary in crafting the pit bull as a social boogie man and something to be feared and reviled.  While this does have the effect of creating a super-scary, super predator, it also serves the purpose of making the pit bull “other” or “less than” a dog to make it easier for us to justify treating it differently than other dogs.  And while there are no specific statistics tracking this, the perception is that pit bull dogs are also more likely to be shot in an encounter with police.  In fact, the high number of “pit bulls” shot by police is held up as proof that pit bulls are more dangerous by the anti-pit bull movement.  When we turn the pit bull into a boogie man, then we can proclaim that no decent person would want to own such a creature, so it doesn’t matter how we treat the people who do own them.  It all comes back around.


This doesn’t mean that we all are outwardly racist or that we all hate or fear pit bulls.  But for decades now, young black men and pit bulls have both been made out to be social boogie men.  Even if we don’t agree with what we hear about either, it is simply impossible for all of us to hear the same fear narrative about both and to just ignore it and not be affected by it in any way.  We hear it, it sinks in and it matters.  We may outwardly reject it, but it is in there deep down and it plays a role in how we think, feel and react and it directly affects our implicit and unconscious bias and it pushes us, even if only slightly and unaware, to be accepting of beliefs about differences and the hate that comes as a result.

Watch MSNBC story

Both pit bull owners and young black men wear the same labels: thugs, drug dealer, gang member – and pit bull bans have actually been put in place to keep out “gang members.”  And, sadly, both pit bulls and young black men also wear the same labels: dangerous, violent, predator.  When hatred of pit bulls and pit bull owners hits the organized zealot level, the perpetrators of that hate use the anonymity of the internet as their “white hood” to stalk, harass and terrorize and even commit acts of violence against pit bulls and their owners.  Black parents often feel they need to have “the talk” with their kids about how they may be treated by some police officers and how their kids should behave.  Similarly, and more so than other dog owners, pit bull owners have to know their rights if animal control comes to their door and, sadly, also the same concerns about encounters with some police were their dog to escape and be at large.  Pit bull owners know that they and their dogs are simply held to a different standard with different expectations and sometimes tragically different results.

14864016116_2d69559759_oAnd in the face of all this, the same hate has resulted in the same response: a resilient defiance and a burning drive to prove the haters wrong. Many in our black communities have had to go to great lengths to ingratiate themselves to a skeptical and cautiously patronizing mainstream culture.  Pit bull owners know that neither they nor their dogs are going to get the benefit of the doubt.  They may avoid dog parks, take extra care to make sure their dogs are never at large and never put themselves or their dogs in a situation that could be misinterpreted and cause an overreaction.  Because a lab running through the street wagging its tail is cute, but a “pit bull” is a threat.  Many pit bull owners even go above and beyond normal care and caution.  They get their dogs into therapy dog work, they pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, are placed as service dogs, reading dogs, search and rescue dogs and all manner of things to actively show that not only is their dog a good dog, but it is better than most dogs.  In fact some cities actually require that pit bull owners go to these extra lengths just for the right of keeping their own dog.  The anti pit bull fear industrial complex refers to these as “Stunt Pits.”  Pit bull owners have to “work twice as hard, be twice as good, to have half as much.”


26925829265_aca10cf14b_zThe lesson in all this is not that racism and the pit bull issue are the same, even if they are related. The lesson is that we are the same. We hate the same, we fear the same, we are biased the same, we fall prey to the same logical fallacies and mistakes of critical thinking. We listen to the same charlatans and empower the same fear mongers. We let them tell us that some people are less than others and that complex problems are as simple as we wish they were. We let them paint us a two tone world and we eat up their simple false choice solutions.

While I have talked about these topics in presentations for years, I’ve never put it all in one place and I’ve never put it all in writing. Seeing it all together made me a little sad. It also motivates me to continue to learn, continue to connect, continue to expand and change my perspective and continue to try to somehow be a part of the solution. It is an interesting lesson in the power of the resurrection of these kinds of ideas. They are demonstrably false, but are believed and spread easy when brought up again in a slightly different context. Not only was there just enough pseudo-science to make them convincing, again, but we allowed them to create many of the same social effects.

Over the years, we have been pleased to see other people and groups recognize the importance of the human side of the “pit bull issue” and integrate these ideas into their advocacy efforts.  By discussing and addressing them in her book, Ms. Dickey gives these ideas perhaps their biggest platform yet and shows that they are essential to any serious, mainstream discussion about the decades old battle over our beloved American Icon.