The Racism Behind Breed Specific Legislation
Pit Bulls (among other breeds) have either been banned or heavily restricted in over 1,000 U.S. Communities.
Pit Bulls (among other breeds) have either been banned or heavily restricted in over 1,000 U.S. Communities.
How we think about race and breed inform one another. The word “race” comes from the world of dogs.
In medieval France, they classified their animals by function and nobility.
The dogs belonging to French nobility were the “highest race” and the common guard dog the “lowest race” — for hundreds of years after, writers across Europe referred to “races” rather than the breed of dog.
That definition of “race” made its way over to define humans during the Enlightenment and “breed” was attached to the dog.
For most Breed Specific Legislation, the term Pit Bull is a catch-all. While it includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier … and in almost all cases, any derivative of the breed or any breed defined as a “bully breed”.
According to The Animal Farm Foundation, “All breed-specific policies and laws can be traced to racism, classism, and ableism. Sometimes this discrimination is against the homeless, people of lesser means, sometimes it’s about ableism, denying people with disabilities access, and other times it’s about racial profiling and stereotypes.”
If you’re scratching your head wondering if there is any proof of racism in Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), consider the following:
While the more savvy politicians and towns may have used coded language, the evidence of racial bias is clear:
The roots of Miami-Dade’s pit bull ban was growing anxiety and social tension about Cuban immigration.
When Denver, CO placed its ban on Pit Bulls after whites moved out and Latinos moved in, a move that “dramatically changed the population of the city”.
When Aurora, CO, enacted a ban on Pit Bulls, one of the commissioners stated that she did not want “those sorts of people” (the perceived owners of Pit Bulls) moving into her community.
New York City — then-Mayor Ed Koch sought similar measures in New York City and he did not do so because of evidence that the dogs were dangerous but because “of who was thought to own them” — see above parenthetical.
Sterling Heights, MI — once a sundown town (a form of segregation by excluding non-whites via some combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation, and violence) — a supporter of the Pit Bull ban called it necessary because: “We have inner-city people who bought homes here.”
Ellenville, NY — these officials didn’t even bother using coded language. They wanted BSL to address the growing number “of Mexicans moving into the community.”
Support for BSL remains strongest with older, white, and more conservative voters in predominantly white suburbs.
History of Dogs Tied to Race in America
In a letter to a friend, first president, patriot and American hero George Washington had this to say about slaves with dogs:
“It is not for any good purpose Negros raise, or keep dogs, but to aid them in their night robberies.”
Any of Washington’s slaves caught with a dog would be severely whipped and the dog was hanged.
Another president, patriot, and American hero, Thomas Jefferson, feared a slave-dog attack on his sheep flocks so much that he informed his caretaker at Monticello:
“…the Negros dogs must all be killed. Do not spare a single one.”
In 1855, South Carolina believed that dogs owned by slaves caused “greater injury to the people of South Carolina than all the abolitionists in the world.”
By 1859, the South Carolina state legislature had written a slave-dog ban into state law.
Why Have a Pet?
Even today the misunderstanding around both who has a dog that may fall under BSL and why they have a dog is wildly driven by race.
Empirical data shows that the race of a defendant has an impact on judicial rulings, creating harsher judgments and sentences for people of color.
If the owner of a Pit Bull is Black, overwhelming anecdotal evidence would indicate, then the legal system would view the nature of the Pit Bull attacks differently than they view other incidents.
Over time, it seems that “Pit bull’ has become a synonym for “Black” and thus a similar legal bias seems to be at play.
The reality is that the majority of people who have dogs as pets, regardless of breed OR race, have them as pets … and treat them as a member of the family.
According to animalshleters.org, roughly 50% of American households have at least one pet dog and of that, 80% treat their dog as a family member.
Scientists have proven that dogs make us laugh more than cats, keep us more active than the average human companion, and even reduce our chances of depression … again, that is regardless of breed and the impact of a dog is indifferent to race.
The practice of eugenics in humans and dog breeding is also connected.
Eugenics — the set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population. Historically this is done by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior and promoting those judged to be superior.
At its peak, 32 states in America had a eugenics program.
From 1929 to 1974, North Carolina was seen as having the most aggressive eugenics program. During those 45 years, a disproportionate number of those who were targeted for forced or coerced sterilization were Black and female, with almost all being poor.
Of the 7,600 women who were sterilized by North Carolina between the years of 1933 and 1973, about 5,000 were Black.
In California, African Americans made up just over 1% of California’s population … and accounted for at least 4% of the total number of sterilization operations conducted by the state between 1909 and 1979.
You’ll notice that eugenics was practiced well into the 20th century. However, it didn’t fall out of favor because American’s suddenly became “woke”. Constant reminders of the Holocaust opened their eyes to the obvious conclusion of eugenics. So, the end of eugenics was not because of a spiritual awakening … it was fear.
Breeding dogs is just eugenics on a different species.
Consider the detailed guidelines, or “breed standards”, used to breed dogs and how they are judged at dog shows and you’ll notice how entrenched eugenics is.
Degenerate — as in “degenerate coat color” for washed-out mutts, or “degenerate races” of half-breed humans.
Undesirable — esthetic features not “allowable” in the ring, or individuals whose lifestyles don’t “conform” to normality.
Expression — used by dog show judges to describe the subjective “thing” they see in a champion, or any random trait believed to be a sign of blood “purity”.
Retrograde terms for mixing races and breeds like“mongrelization” and “debasement” have been applied to humans and dogs.
BSL is Not Effective
Some 860 cities regulate specific dog breeds, and of those, 100% target pit bulls!
In Bronwen Dickey’s book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, she points out that in almost all municipalities where Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) has been adopted, it has failed to prevent serious dog bite injuries and hospitalizations.
“Veterinarians, animal behaviorists, and public health experts including those at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are virtually unanimous in their denunciation of BSL on the grounds that is it both cruel and ineffective.”
In 2013, the Obama administration released a statement weighing in on the subject. The president said: “Breed-Specific Legislation is a Bad Idea.”
In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association stated that: “controlled studies have not identified this breed group [Pit Bulls] as disproportionately dangerous”, and that “it has not been demonstrated that introducing a breed-specific ban will reduce the rate or severity of bite injuries occurring in the community.”
Only the most radical group — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — supports BSL.
Despite the group’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk saying that Pit Bulls are only kept by “drug dealers” and “pimps” the group has bizarrely attempted to frame their support of BSL as protection for Pit Bulls.
BSL & Housing
A large swath of BSL targets renters, be it private or public housing.
While many restrictions are common sense like don’t hoard animals or have wild animals, others are more targeted.
In New York City, the NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), provides housing to +/- 400,000 New Yorkers. They have had a ban in place since 2009 that restricts specific breeds — including “Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and Dobermans, either pure- or mixed-breed.”
Compared to the demographics of NYC as a whole, public housing residents are far more likely to be Black or Hispanic. In 2017, over 90.0 percent of public housing residents were Black or Hispanic.
In the private sector, renters face state and local government restrictions regarding pet ownership in addition to the whims of the property owner. Academic Ann Linder wrote in her article The Black Man’s Dog: The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation: “Breed-specific legislation may be being used as a new form of redlining to keep minorities out of majority-white neighborhoods.”
Landlord-imposed pet restrictions disproportionately impact two groups: low-income renters and renters with a socially-maligned breed of dog including:
Websites like the openly prejudiced DogBites.org do little to hide their contempt and arguably racist beliefs:
DogsBite.org is a public education website about dangerous dog breeds, chiefly Pit Bulls.
Define a Pit Bull
How is the breed of “Pit Bull” defined to adjudicate BSL?
The term “Pit Bull” is an umbrella label that includes several “bully” breeds. While there is a breed called American Pit Bull Terrier, there are no less than 42 different breeds of dogs that would be categorized under the generic “bully” label.
Making any definition of a Pit Bull legally suspect, at best. But that has not stopped municipalities from continuing to enact BSL.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the city of the 2014 murder of Michael Brown, it’s measure is the most unimaginative and historically offensive: for all intents and purposes, they apply the “one-drop rule”.
Ferguson’s animal control ordinance has written into its municipal code Section 6–21: “It shall be unlawful to keep, harbor, own, or in any way possess” a Pit Bull in Ferguson. Any purebred Pit Bull or any “mixed breed of dog which contains any element of its breeding” OR “any dog which has the appearance and characteristics” of those breeds.
Applied to humans, the “one-drop rule” is a social and legal construct that says “any person where even one ancestor of Black ancestry (“one drop” of Black blood) is considered Black.”
This rule was also enforced during WW II to place Japanese Americans in internment camps.
Today there are no enforceable laws in the U.S. in which the one-drop rule is applicable … to humans. Sociologically, the concept remains somewhat pervasive … in particular with dogs.
Pit Bull Myths
They have the strongest bite of any canine.
FALSE — they don’t even crack the top 12. The honor goes to the Kangal.
Pit Bulls have bad tempers.
FALSE — as of December 2017, 87.4% of American Pit Bull Terriers had passed their temperament testing. Note — This is a higher number to pass these tests than Collies (80.8%), Beagles (79.7%), and even Golden Retrievers (85.6%).
Pit Bull bites are deadly.
FALSE — 81% of dog bites cause no injury at all or are only minor injuries that do not require medical attention … and the Chihuahua is the number one offender.
Pit Bulls will attack indiscriminately.
FALSE — Pit Bulls or a bully breed are like any other dog. As long as you respect that ALL dogs don’t like to be hugged, don’t approach a dog while they’re eating and don’t reach through a fence to pet them. Respect the dog the same way you would a human.
Pit Bulls attack more frequently.
FALSE — Real data on dog attacks are scarce. The Centers for Disease and Control stopped tracking dog bites by breed in 2000, acknowledging serious flaws in past data collection. “It’s virtually impossible to calculate bite rates for specific breeds”.
That said, it is important not to minimize Pit Bull incidents.
You can still be a defender of Pit Bulls without neglecting the impact of Pit Bull bites. The best defense is to educate yourself and defend the Pit Bull against those wary of the breed.
The Bottom Line
In short, Breed Specific Legislation is racist.
In other European countries that enacted BSL, like the U.K. which has a total ban on Pit Bulls, their stated aim was not protecting the public from dangerous dogs, it was for “keeping out the specter of American inner-city culture.”
According to writer Bronwen Dickey, when people talk about Pit Bulls, they often reveal their opinions on class and race issues while “using the dogs as proxies.”
The legislation doesn’t work. It’s used to exclude people of color from housing (new red-lining) or communities, it’s cruel and ineffective to both pet and owner, and worst of all it’s specifically used to target and marginalize Black and Brown people because the perception is that they’re the principal owners of the Pit Bull when no such data supports that.
As long as we’re re-evaluating policing in the United States and beginning those discussions, it’s time to re-visit Breed Specific Legislation and eliminate these laws.
All sources and references are linked within the text of the article.