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Racism and Pit Bull Terriers by Merritt Clifton (March 21, 2005 Best Friends Animal Society Online Forum)

Racism and Pit Bull Terriers by Merritt Clifton (March 21, 2005 Best Friends Animal Society Online Forum)



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Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, delves into the issue of racism and pit bull terriers in a 2005 online forum hosted by Best Friends. He cites the history of the pit bull terrier and how dogfighting shifted from an underground Caucasian bloodsport to an inner city Afro-American problem. He also cites the failure of the humane community in fully integrating Afro-Americans into their work and failing to keep dogfighting from spreading into their communities.
Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, delves into the issue of racism and pit bull terriers in a 2005 online forum hosted by Best Friends. He cites the history of the pit bull terrier and how dogfighting shifted from an underground Caucasian bloodsport to an inner city Afro-American problem. He also cites the failure of the humane community in fully integrating Afro-Americans into their work and failing to keep dogfighting from spreading into their communities.

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Published by: DogsBite.org on Apr 05, 2010
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Best Friends Animal Society Online Forum
March 21, 2005http://www.bestfriends.org/archives/forums/032105cultures.html#two
Merritt Clifton, Editor 
 Animal People
Question from Linda
: I’ve been reading all the info I can on the dog fighting underground in our country – including a stack of articles I got from HSUS’ west coast office – & am developing a plan of attack for our region. Though I have the assistance of HSUS’ regional office, this issuehas not really been dealt with in our neck of the woods, and the more I read, the the sadder &more repulsed I become.
Merritt Clifton response:
The HSUS literature will not really help you a fraction as much incombating dogfighting as it should. Neither will the literature or strategy of any other major mainstream humane society or animal control agency in the U.S., because all of it tends to tap-dance around the crux of the problem.One of the major reasons why the major organizations in animal protection tend to tap-dance around the problem is a deep and indeed deliberately cultivated misunderstanding of theethnic and racial issues involved.Most animal advocates who deal with dogfighting today tend to recognize it as a deadlyproblem in inner cities, associated with Afro-American and Hispanic drug gangs, as well as withwhite methadrine addicts in rural areas--but most of the people trying to stop dogfighting todaydon't know how it came to be where it is.Most are not clearly aware that as recently as 25 years ago dogfighting was virtuallyunknown in inner cities. Most U.S. animal control officers had rarely if ever seen pit bull terriers,or American Staffordshires or any of the many other terms used to describe what are essentially just color variants of the same breed of fighting dog.Dogfighting in most of the U.S. was an artifact of history. Historically, dogfighting had oncebeen practiced in waterfront neighborhoods around the country, brought from England along withthe dogs. Dogfighting thrived as a gambling pastime of sailors for more than 100 years, butbefore it spread far from the coasts and the Great Lakes, it was discouraged by the strict anti-gambling perspective of frontier Protestant religion, by the association of dogfighting with idlers,by the impracticality of transporting fighting dogs by wagon or train, and eventually by theaggressive opposition of the author Jack London.Allied with Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell, his voice amplified by thehundreds of Jack London Clubs that Angell sponsored via the American Humane EducationSociety, Jack London between 1905 and his death in 1916 drove dogfighting out of therespectable sporting press. Dogfighting was soon banned by legislation in almost every statewhose legislature the Ku Klux Klan did not control.From then until the early 1980s, dogfighting was almost exclusively a fundraising activity of the Klan and Klan splinter groups, along with cockfighting and pigeon shoots. As recently as theearly 1930s, Klan chapters would openly advertise dogfights, cockfights, and pigeon shoots. Asovert racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, the ads becamemore discreet.By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded, the Klan connection was barely visible--unless youknew what to look for. By then, the Klan itself had largely morphed into motorcycle gangs andskinheads, and the younger generations of racists had fled to the west and Pacific Northwest,pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah toAlaska. Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos.But they took dogfighting with them. In Oakland, where the national headquarters of theHell's Angels and the Black Panthers were only blocks apart in the early 1970s, where I first
encountered dogfighting, and in prisons all over the country, the white bad guys and the blackbad guys met, exchanged cultural influences, and produced mirror images of each other: whitepimps. Black dogfighters.If the Imperial Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan had devised a plot about then to do themaximum possible damage to Afro-Americans, he could not have concocted a more diabolicalscheme than to introduce dogfighting to black inner cities.With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations, there was no longer anyreason to keep it as an exclusive franchise, while unleashing pit bull terriers amid crowdedhousing projects and multi-family small framehouses full of little kids was a surefire way to kill andmaim many more children, faster, than the Birmingham Bomber ever dreamed of.Here was a weapon deadlier than razor blades for inner city youth to fight with, with morebackfire potential than a zip gun. Here was an animal whom crime-plagued people would chain toporches for protection, who would as often harm them instead.But the Imperial Grand Wizards Ku Klux Klan are not really wizards at all. There was no bigplot to what they did. Certainly they did not anticipate that the bleeding-heart liberal humanecommunity would unwittingly become their strongest allies--and would continue to be for the next30 years, at least.During the same years that dogfighting was spreading around the world from port to portwith the British Navy and merchant fleet, a few generations before Charles Darwin spent hisshore leave deducing the theory of evolution instead of attending dogfights, the principles of selective breeding to produce fiercer fighting dogs and faster racehorses became generallyknown.While gamblers produced the pit bull terrier and kindred fighting breeds, upper class dogfanciers developed the concept of the purebred show dog.They also applied the theory of selective breeding to explain their own good fortune.Inherited wealth was theirs not simply because their ancestors were on the winning side of a war,or kissed the king's butt, or both, but because they were of "good breeding," which perhaps evenentitled them to own slaves."Well-bred" people of course had to have "well-bred" dogs. From out of the attitude of classsuperiority came the further notion of the superiority of dogs whose gene pool was deliberatelynarrowed to the point that a similar narrowing among humans would most assuredly produceidiots. Breeds were defined as "pure" only when it was no longer possible to discern the work of natural evolution among them.The theory of evolution arrived as a great challenge to this mistaken view of naturalhierarchical order. Evolution recognizes adaptability, not specialization, as the ultimaterequirement for species survival. Purebreds, human or canine, are maladaptive and foredoomedto extinction. "Breed" and "race" represent the beginnings of slow adaptation into morespecialized creatures whose opportunities to thrive despite habitat change over the centuries arerelatively limited. The infinite variability of mutts--hybrid vigor--is the trait that best ensurespassing one's genes farthest into the future.Adherents of a belief in racial purity tend to resist accepting the implications of evolution.Remember what I said about the production of idiots.People who worry about preserving particular dog breeds are mostly unwittingly upholdingsimilarly misguided pre-Darwinian ideas. Dogs themselves did quite well at selecting the traitsthat would best ensure their survival, including in proximity to humans, for millions of years beforehumans mucked about in the process, creating breeds--like the pit bull terrier and many dozensof others--who have no natural analogs and could not survive on their own, in their naturalecological niche, without undergoing considerable backward evolution to resemble their muchless specialized ancestors.However, dog breed fanciers are a considerable subset of the dog-keeping population.From the beginning of the humane movement, dog breed fanciers have been among the highestdonors to human organizations. When most of the U.S. banned dogfighting in the early 20thcentury, the humane community abruptly found itself called upon to dispose of countless dogswho had been bred for fights that would now never occur.
Even though those humane societies that held animal control contracts were alreadystruggling to find ways of quickly killing ever larger numbers of harmless humble mutts, thehumane community responded to the discomfort of breed fanciers over mass destruction of pitbull terriers by initiating the first large-scale attempt to alter the dangerous image of the breed.Books such as Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog were commissioned and distributed to publicschool libraries, for example, to attempt to persuade the public to adopt pit bulls over humblemutts.The current claims of pit bull defenders that pit bulls were once America's favorite dog, werenot dangerous toward human handlers, etc., can mostly be traced back to that epoch. (In fact, themost popular dog breeds when pit bulls are said to have been most popular were the Americancollie and the Border collie, reflecting the then-longtime importance of the since almost vanishedU.S. wool industry.)Between the early 20th century and the early 1980s, breed fanciers similarly called uponthe humane community to help defend and rehabilitate the image of Dobermans and Germanshepherds, who never actually rated high in actuarial risk, i.e. amount of payout in death andinjury cases relative to the numbers of dogs insured.Except for trained guard dogs, whose behavior was specifically modified to increase their threat potential, Dobermans and German shepherds were never demonstrably more dangerousthan other large breeds.Then came the invasion of dogfighting into inner city black neighborhoods. Remember where it came from. Be aware that a black child is now three times more likely to be killed or maimed by a dog before age 10 than a white child. Be aware of the role of fighting dogs inguarding the crack houses that menace entire neighborhoods with the sort of traffic they attract.Know the extent to which bad guys with their bad dogs have amplified the fear that inner citypeople already had of street crime.Remember the origin of the whole idea of "breed" as a virtue, among people dedicated tomaintaining their own privileged status by equating it with their own "racial purity," distinguishedby "good breeding."Now consider the irony that in the mistaken equation of "breed discrimination" with humanracism, the Humane Society of the U.S. and American SPCA, among others, have since 1984 joined the American Kennel Club in leading the opposition to breed-specific legislation that wouldfight the proliferation of dogfighting in exactly the same manner that we fight drug abuse: byprohibiting the production and sale of the dangerous item and associated paraphernalia.Prohibiting the production and sale of crack, speed, and heroin in no way interferes with thelegitimate production and use of drugs of authentic medicinal value.Prohibiting the production and sale of dog breeds who have been artificially manipulated tobecome weapons will in no way interfere with the right to existence, such as it is, of any well-behaved living dog. It will merely ensure the rapid reduction in numbers of the only dogs who inthe U.S. are bred and disposed of like meat, with an average lifespan of only about 18 months,whether killed in the ring or euthanized by an animal shelter, and a euthanasia rate of 93% whenadmitted to animal shelters.Pit bull terriers and their close mixes, constituting under 5% of the U.S. dog population,have accounted for half the total actuarial risk in each individual year since 1982. Rottweilershave accounted for about 25%, and all other breeds combined have accounted for theremainder.While there are human victims among all classes and ethnic groups, Afro-Americans,especially Afro-American children, have suffered most.Failing to fully integrate the Afro-American community into humane work during the 20thcentury, after a promising start in the 19th century, was the first great dereliction of duty towardAfro-Americans of the U.S. humane movement.The second was failure to keep dogfighting from spreading into the Afro-American inner city, from the most racist niches within white America.Both failures now need to be rectified--as does a significant dereliction of duty toward dogs.No dog chooses to be a pit bull.

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