Academics say fear of pit bulls is linked to… racism?

A number of academics are calling restrictions on pit bull ownership, and the general view that pit bulls are dangerous, a product of racism.

Statistics have shown pit bulls to be the most deadly breed of dog in the United States.

Some non-profit organizations are acting on the findings of academics and trying to repeal rules related to pit bulls.

The Animal Farm Foundation, a non-profit “dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for ‘pit bull’ dogs and their owners”, has launched a new initiative to combat “exclusionary dog breed restrictions in the housing insurance industry.”

In its statement, the AFF cites the work of Ann Linder, a Legislative Policy Fellow with Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Program. According to her paper, “The Black Man’s Dog: The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation”, pit bulls have been unfairly tied to “gang violence by urban youths, as well as the hip-hop music scene.”

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Also referenced is the work of Emory University associate professor of philosophy, Erin Tarver. In her work “The Dangerous Individual(’s) Dog: Race, Criminality and the ‘Pit Bull’,” Tarver applies French philosopher Michel Focault’s notion of “the dangerous individual” to what she sees as modern racialized attitudes towards pit bulls and the “perceived threat to normative whiteness” such animals pose.

Despite accounting for just 6.5% of all dogs in the United States, pit bulls were responsible for 66% of total fatal dog attacks between 2005 and 2017. 

Tying the societal perception of pit bulls to anti-Black racism has become a theme in certain  American academic circles. 

Harlan Weaver, a professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at Kansas State University, gave a talk at Lafayette College last fall about how racial prejudice has driven the negative perception of pit bulls. The college’s student paper states that his work focuses on “racialization, using this interspecies intersectionality to ‘identify troubling dynamics and inheritances…but also to disrupt what is a very common logic in animal advocacy, in which racism is simultaneously engaged and erased through appropriative and substitutive moves.’”

Weaver began his talk by stating that “stigma” aimed at “communities of color” posed a threat to pit bulls, stating that “tacit heteronormative whiteness” is not good for the dogs. According to him, America is “presenting injustices faced by pit bulls as like racism by appropriating the rhetoric and often the effects or emotions associated with race related social justice issues.” 

As the event continued, Weaver argued that pit bulls tend to be put in shelters due to “pervasive racism and misogyny, a struggle to sustain a living wage and myriad other injustices”, according to the college’s newspaper. 

He concluded the event by stating that in order to achieve racial justice for pit bulls, society must provide “a justice that challenges anthropocentrism, a justice that disrupts the pitting of rational man against racial animal otherness, a justice I term, borrowing from conversation with a range of folks, a multi-species justice.”

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In a similar vein, a University of Denver study found that the city’s pit bull ban disproportionately affected racial minorities. University of Denver researchers claim that enforcement of Denver’s pit bull ban “has taken place primarily in our communities of color in Denver,” and that “this criminalization of certain pet owners has exacerbated the barriers they already experience to accessing pet support services.”

A wealth of papers, studies and books have been published by academics dealing with how racism allegedly influences our perception of pit bulls.

Stacey Coleman, Executive Director of the AFF, told Campus Reform that the practice of singling out pit bulls in this way is “steeped in the insurance history of redlining.” Coleman argued that there is a perception that racial minorities tend to own pit bulls and that by denying insurance to pit bull owners, policy makers may be acting on that perception and implicitly discouraging minorities from moving to a given area.

When asked about whether pit bull restrictions were racist in effect, Coleman responded to the lack of demographic data on pit bull ownership by providing personal anecdotes. According to her, multiple policymakers she had met with to discuss breed specific legislation had used racialized language to justify pit bull restrictions. 

Coleman further echoed Linder’s sentiments, telling Campus Reform that there is insufficient quality data to merit breed-specific restrictions. She pointed out that dog bite fatalities have remained more or less constant for the past 20 years.

Linder told Campus Reform that her “research suggests that unlike each of the other breeds of dogs included in the study, pit bulls were unique in being perceived as predominantly owned by people of color— most particularly, young, black, males.” 

“It stands to reason that in the minds of decision-makers imposing these policies” she continued,  “that same association holds true, that the people they presume to be excluding by imposing breed restrictions are more often than not people of color.” Linder clarified that this doesn’t necessarily mean pit bull restrictions are discriminatory in intent, but “does suggest that there is likely some pre-existing belief or awareness on the part of most Americans that imposing a policy that targets pitbull owners would have outsized impact on communities of color.