A recent discussion over at Robert Lindsay’s blog* revolved around the relative cruelty different races display toward animals. I was taken to task for writing that blacks seem to display more cruelty toward animals than whites (but some Asian groups seem to be the worst in this regard). It seems to me that there is a somewhat larger minority of blacks, that has no compassion toward animals, than exists among whites. It is well-known that the great majority of animal advocacy groups were founded by whites, and are almost entirely composed of whites.
PETA has a site called “African-Americans for Animal Rights” but it turns out that almost the entire page relates to the vegan diet rather than animal rights per se’. Following a link, on that site, called “blackvegetarians.org” takes us to a page that appears to promote a single book by a solitary woman. There does not seem to be an actual organization behind the site at all, though the woman does appear to be serious about promoting a worthy cause – and I wish her plenty of success. All three of the other links, that purport to lead to black vegetarian/nutrition sites, yield “404 not found” errors. The impression I got was that PETA used a misleading headline and then tried to switch topics on the sly – except that even the replacement topic proved to be a dud. Personally I think a real, bonafide black vegetarian movement would be a very positive development for blacks – and for everybody. Not because a vegetarian diet is necessarily more healthy, but because it would promote more awareness of what people eat, and it would promote empathy toward other creatures.
Blacks are noticeably underrepresented within animal rights organizations. Even though some have argued that this is because of racial discrimination, and “lack of outreach” by those organizations, their claims have little merit. On the one hand, they deny the possibility that black attitudes toward animals might differ from those of whites. But on the other hand, they use that self-same claim in order to promote the “need” for diversity. Here are two quotes from Sue-Ellen Brown’s “The Under-representation of African American Employees in Animal Welfare Organizations in the United States“:
Some researchers have suggested that Whites and African Americans have differing values toward animals… However, none of the speculations have been validated by well controlled research (pg. 55).
Greater diversity is needed in animal welfare for moral, political, and sociological reasons… If African Americans have a perspective different from a vocal majority of Whites and if they remain invisible, they will be vulnerable to the effects of changing laws for which they had no input (pg. 59).
You can’t have it both ways. The most coherent explanation I have seen so far comes from Melissa Harris-Perry, of The Nation, who writes (regarding the different reactions, among whites and blacks, to the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal):
Given this history we might think that African Americans would be particulalry (sic) strident animal rights activists, seeing their interests as profoundly linked. But the relationship between race, rights, and animals is more complicated. Dogs, for example, were used by enslavers to catch, trap and return those who were trying to escape to freedom. Dogs were used to terrorize Civil Rights demonstrators. In short, animals have been weapons used against black bodies and black interests in ways that have deep historical resonace.
Not only have animals been used as weapons against black people, but many African Americans feel that the suffering of animals evokes more empathy and concern among whites than does the suffering of black people. For example, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina dozens of people sent me a link to an image of pets being evacuated on an air conditioned bus. This image was a sickening juxtaposition to the conditions faced by tens of thousands of black residents trapped by the storm and it provoked great anger and pain for those who sent it to me.
Perhaps, but I wonder how many of today’s blacks actually experienced the abuses Harris-Perry describes. True, it is possible that such experiences molded black American culture so that blacks tend to view animals differently than other groups. On the other hand, do African blacks view animals much differently?
Obviously, there are some Africans who appreciate the importance of their native wildlife to both their economy and well-being. The Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) is active in Kenya – but the results of a google search for “animal rights in Africa” imply that the vast majority of such movements are centered in South Africa and thus were probably founded by whites.
I don’t have all the answers, but I will throw a crazy theory out there – feel free to chew it up and spit it out if you wish: In Equatorial Africa animals of all kinds were abundant. Many of them were dangerous to humans. It is only natural that the people of such a clime would view animals differently than would people in Europe, where the fauna is much less abundant and where there were fewer predators (the “big bad wolf” notwithstanding). This would, of course, shape their culture. Is it possible that there might be a genetic component as well? Perhaps. We would then find that all tropical peoples share a similar attitude (with the obvious exception of totems and other religious considerations) toward animals.
* A commentator at Lindsay’s blog suggested that “Animal rights is simply social egalitarianism extended to animals”. I would agree, and I have said so myself. But there can be more than one contributing cause to a phenomenon.