About seven years ago, when author Bronwen Dickey started writing a book about pit bulls, she said she was intrigued by the reactions she got from people. Everyone seemed to have a strong opinion about the dogs, but they often had more to do with stereotypes about the dogs’ owners than the animals themselves.
“There is all this coded, racialized language like ‘thug’ or ‘gangsta’ or ‘dealer’,” said Dickey, who is also a contributing editor at The Oxford American.
When people talk about pit bulls, they often reveal their opinions on class and race issues while “using the dogs as proxies,” according to Dickey. The recent history of the dog, she argues in her new book, is partly a story about racism and cultural stereotypes.
“When I did more research about what had actually happened in the 70s and 80s, and saw how much race-baiting there was in the media coverage of pit bulls, I thought it was really something I had to pay attention to,” Dickey told Fusion.
Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon traces the history of pit bulls in America—from being featured on war-era propaganda posters to being outright banned in cities and municipalities that branded them as “superpredators,” a term that has recently re-entered the political landscape for its racist connotations.
Originally bred in England for an erstwhile “sport” known as bullbaiting, the dogs were later used in clandestine dog fights in basements and taverns—a bloodsport that eventually crossed the ocean to America.
A select few of the dogs continued to be bred and trained for fighting. But huge amounts of them were integrated into normal, domestic American life.
At their peak, an American pit bull terrier named Stubby was a decorated World War I hero; he once captured a German spy in combat. Pit bull-type dogs were kept by Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. (Dickey and most dog experts don’t consider them actually “breeds,” but rather a loosely defined “type” of dog.) Pal, a pit bull, appeared in over 200 films in the early 1900s, the most famous of which as Petey in “The Little Rascals.”
That was the golden age for pit bulls. But by the late 1960s, public perception started to shift.
As urban crime skyrocketed, pit bulls became increasingly employed as guard dogs in economically depressed black and brown neighborhoods. Dickey says that’s when newspapers started printing bogus stories about these dogs, fabricating alarming reports of vicious behavior. One 1974 New York Times article claimed that pit bull puppies were trained to fight by killing kittens and other puppies.
Through her research, Dickey said, she was never able to substantiate the claims made in those articles. But it was too late. The enduring urban legend of the pit bull as an unrivaled killing machine had been born.
Real data on dog attacks is surprisingly 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,” the White House said about that decision.
“Singling out 1 or 2 breeds for control can result in a false sense of accomplishment,” added a 2001 report from the American Veterinary Medical Association, which backed the CDC’s policy shift. “Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite. Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem.”
Dickey thinks that fear, more than facts or science, drove a lot of the media’s reports on pit bulls. The narrative was racially charged, she writes.
Dickey says upper-class white people couldn’t believe the barbarity of the people who owned what they believed to be fighting dogs, and they projected these views onto the dogs themselves. Self-styled pit bull “experts” started offering the media quotes about how the dogs have a “will to kill” that’s unrivaled in the natural world.
“This is a dog in name only,” yelled a column in the Los Angeles Times. Similar reports all but linked the dogs to the crack epidemic that was sweeping inner cities and scaring white people.
In fact, Dickey notes, when you look at the words “pit bull” and “crack cocaine” in the Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks word usage in literature over time, you can see the two terms picked up in usage around the same time in the late 1980s. Here’s the chart:
Dickey might have initially intended to write about a particular animal, and indeed she did. But the end result, she said, has a bigger message.
“Right now we’re at a height of people denying science—think of climate-change deniers and the anti-vaccine movement. People are rebelling against scientific consensus. I think we all need to trust scientific consensus, but at the same time we have to double check and see that everything is on the up and up as well,” she said. “I hope that [the book] will start a conversation and challenge people to be skeptical of everybody, myself included.”