Last night I had one of those awful television moments that sometimes afflict those of us who spend part of our life in classroom where we have 90 minutes to discuss a topic and the other part of our life on television where we are constrained to four-minute analyses. On Wednesday evening I joined The Rachel Maddow Show to discuss the current flap surrounding Michael Vick and President Obama.
My goal was to offer some historical context for understanding the vastly different responses to Vick’s crime, to the severity of his punishment, and to the sense that he should be given a second chance to earn a living as a professional football player. I believe that to understand these different public responses we need to know how the Vick case evokes often unspoken, but nonetheless powerful, and deeply emotional interconnections between the rights of black Americans and of animals. Instead, having vastly underestimated the allotted time for the segment I instead seemed to argue that Vick’s acts were justified by the history of American racism. This touched off quite a flood of hate mail to my email inbox last night. So I’ve decided to make one more effort to discuss this complicated issue.
Last year I was teaching an introductory politics course at Princeton University when a campus animal rights group brought to campus a fascinating and provocative exhibit that linked animal cruelty to human degradation, imprisonment and slavery. The images in the exhibit were part of a larger international PETA effort. They were disturbing, but also very powerful.
Many African American students on campus were deeply offended, hurt and angry about the exhibit’s comparison of animal suffering to the realities of the slave trade and lynching. The Organization of Black Students organized a protest and boycott. The campus animal rights group organized a teach-in. I had leaders from both student organizations in my class that semester. The tension, emotion, and analytic challenges raised by the exhibit became an important aspect of the class. A group of students even made a film about the issue for the final class project. As I sought to help guide my students through these interactions I opened up a new line of research on the politics of race and animal rights.
Recall that North American slavery of the 17th and 18th century is distinguished by its “chattel” element. New World slavery did not consider enslaved Africans to be conquered persons, but to be chattel, beast of burden, fully subhuman and therefore not requiring the basic rights of humans. By defining slaves as animals and then abusing them horribly the American slave system degraded both black people and animals. By equating black people to animals it both asserted the superiority of humans to animals, arrayed some humans (black people) as closer to animals and therefore less human, and implied that all subjugated persons and all animals could be used and abused at the will of those who were more powerful. The effects were pernicious for both black people and for animals.
Equating black people to animals was a practice that continued after emancipation. Consider the image below. It is a picture of an Alabama store during the Jim Crow era. The sign reads: No Negro or Ape Allowed in the Building.