My 2010 Paper on Race, Breed Specific Legislation, & Policing

Back in 2010 I wrote a conference paper that argued breed specific legislation used dog breed as a proxy for human race, and was (a) an attempt to put back into the law the explicitly race-based discrimination outlawed by the 14th Amendment, such that (b) the appearance of one’s dog effectively became a ‘broken window’ that became an excuse for intensified policing and surveillance, particularly among urban black populations. It won an award at the conference, and was supposed to be published along with the other award-winning papers….but that never happened, for whatever reason.

Because the new Montreal BSL law has led to several articles about race, antiblackness, and BLS to be (re)circulated, I thought I’d throw this old thing out again. Here’s the link to the full paper; the intro is printed below.

Although “pit bulls” are not a breed officially recognized by the American Kennel Club, and common usage of the term often conflates/confuses several different breeds of dogs,[i] many municipalities (and the entire United Kingdom)[ii] have adopted Breed Specific Legislation (BSL).  BSL purports to protect innocent dogs and people by banning the ownership and prescribing the euthanization of specific dog breeds thought to be inherently, inalienably violent and aggressive—i.e., pit bulls.  Using Falguni Sheth’s account of how a population comes to be constituted as a “race,” I argue that pit bulls have been racialized, and that this racialization motivates the otherwise unjustifiably inhumane treatment of pit bulls.  According to Sheth, populations become racialized by their association with “the unruly”; these populations symbolize and are perceived as an existential threat to dominant society (e.g., “Muslims are terrorists”).  Through an analysis of both specific BSL bills and media coverage thereof, I argue that pit bulls are associated with a specific brand of racialized “unruliness”—i.e., urban black masculinity.  Like racist stereotypes about lower-class black men, pit bulls are thought to be inherently violent, uncontrollably aggressive, irremediably dangerous, rabid criminals wandering the street waiting to pounce on innocent children.  Because they are dogs, dominant society does to pit bulls de jure what it wishes it could do, in the law, to black men, but can’t anymore (but still does de facto): kill them.  Put differently, in contexts where explicit racism is both illegal and immoral, BSL serves as a proxy for anti-black racism.[iii]  Thus, I argue that BSL is an attempt not to contain dog violence per se, but the unruliness associated with urban black masculinity; in this sense, then, the dogs become innocent victims of our racism.

[i] In casual, journalistic, and legal usage, “pit bull” can refer to American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and other dogs, often mixes and mutts (who sometimes have no Pit or Staffie ancestry, but are mixes of entirely different breeds.  In contexts where it is necessary to avoid pit-bull bans/fees/prejudice/etc., it is common for pit bull owners to refer to their dogs as “boxer mixes”).

[ii] The Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 banned the ownership, breeding, and sale of dogs who are either pure- or mixed-breed pit bull terriers, along with three other breeds of dogs.  See Accessed 12 August 2010.

[iii] Thanks to Michael Monahan for the “proxy” formulation.