Redemption and retribution, dogs and African-Americans: The tortured case of Michael Vick

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

The controversy over Michael Vick’s rehabilitation begs to be oversimplified. And of course, this is just what has happened. Melissa Harris-Perry offers a more nuanced view than most,1 which is still over-simplistic.

The first, most obvious issue to me is the question of Michael Vick’s moral status. Despite ample evidence of systemic discrimination against people of color and the poor,2 our society tends to treat people who have been convicted of a crime as irredeemable, as if their conviction is a sign of an unmalleable inner criminal essence that justifies a continuing suspicion.3 Those convicted of sex offenses or crimes against children seem particularly vulnerable to this prejudice. And it appears from the Vick case that those convicted of animal abuse may also fall into this category.

Part of this undoubtedly stems from the apparent ineffectiveness of the criminal so-called justice system. Those who are incarcerated often seem to emerge worse than when they went in. Which given the dehumanization of prisoners,4 Peter Kropotkin suggested is just what we should expect.5 Angela Davis argues:

Prisons create the assumption that those who are a threat to our safety and security are behind bars, but in actuality, the techniques of violence, the techniques of terror that are most dangerous, are the ones used within the system itself. . . .

And the violence of slavery, which we assume was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment and afterwards, is very much at work within US prison institutions. And because the prison has been marketed on the global capitalist circuit, we discover these prisons, the US-style prisons now, all over the world, in the Global North as well as the Global South.6

Even with an increasingly punitive “law and order” regime, even as the sociologist Steven Barkan points to even worse overcrowding than before, a vast increase in the number of incarcerated people from before, and for all that, crime rates that are still higher than in many other industrialized countries.7 But,

If harsher punishment does not work, perhaps we could at least keep society safer by imprisoning larger numbers of criminals, especially chronic, hard-core offenders, and keeping them off the streets for longer amounts of time. . . . [This argument] assumes that we can easily identify the chronic offenders who need to be incapacitated. However, it is not clear whether we can accurately identify such offenders and predict their future behavior (Auerhahn 2002). The incapacitation argument also ignores the fact that any extra people we put in prison represent only a small percentage of all offenders, and that they will quickly be replaced on the streets by other offenders. The billions of dollars we would have to spend to house them will thus be largely wasted.8

The continued quest for retribution against Vick, then, must be seen as part of a larger picture in which people who run afoul of a deeply bigoted and flawed system are held responsible for the failures of that system. But there are other aspects to this, as Harris-Perry writes of events on campus where she teaches, that, “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.”9

This is also about a larger prejudice. Harris-Perry refers on one hand to animal suffering, and on the other to “the realities of the slave trade and lynching” suggesting that the latter is somehow more real than the former. In a society that seeks to excuse its continuing consumption of meat and animal products, this might be expected, but Harris-Perry refers to the rationale for slavery:

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.10

Actually, it is likely that even if whites had never enslaved blacks and other people of color, that animal suffering in slaughterhouses, factory farms, and in other places—like the dog fighting rings such as the one in which Vick was implicated—would continue. As one concerned both for civil rights and for animal rights, I would like to link these issues. I cannot, except that they both reflect hierarchical attitudes, in which some living beings assume a privilege to abuse other living beings.

It turns out, however, that blacks also reject the linkage:

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.11

All animals, therefore, must take the fall for some humans’ use of dogs against other humans—a very strange way to assign responsibility that appears to excuse any abuse of dogs (and apparently other animals) as retribution. African-Americans who see the case of Michael Vick as a sign of (mostly white) animal activists’ racism would do well to consider this more carefully.

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