The Racism of Low Expectations

And its deadly consequences for animals

Norman Lear — who is white — was once asked what made him think he could create “The Jeffersons,” a television show about a black family. He responded that his shared humanity allowed him to. He loved his family; they loved their families. He wanted health, safety, happiness, prosperity, comfort, and dignity; they wanted those things, too. “That is my belief,” he said. “We are just versions of each other.” 

The exchange highlights the two fundamentally different ways to understand the importance of race. Race can be regarded as a morally meaningless distinction. That doesn’t mean ignoring inequality; to the contrary. It means rooting it out to build a colorblind society. This is how people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., viewed race and is the approach of classical liberalism, was the backbone of the civil rights movement for much of its history and has been at the heart of much of its greatest successes. It is the approach I support and — when advocating for the expansion of rights to non-humans — embrace, believing it to be an essential and tested means by which we can win animals greater protections.

But race can be regarded as a morally important distinction. This means working to create a segmented world where people are treated differently because of their skin color: whether on television, the workplace, politics, or even human-animal relations. This is the illiberal approach, which I reject. It is, however, how adherents of “critical race theory” think the world is and should be.

In Underdogs, Andrew Rowan and Arnold Arluke start with the premise that people of color are fundamentally different to whites and for that reason, argue that the animal protection movement should develop “ethnoracial cultural sensitivity” when it comes to judging how people of color treat their animal companions. Rowan and Arluke claim that black people have “culturally specific” “folk knowledge” that guides their “indigenous” human-animal relations. And they conclude that shelter workers should lower their standards in deference to these “indigenous” relations, even when doing so is “at odds with the humane society’s own core beliefs about how animals should be cared for.” They even go so far as to argue that shelters should turn a blind-eye to dogfighting.

Similarly, Katja Guenther argues in The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals that treating animals as family, showing them affection and providing them medical care are white values; in contrast to treating animals “as resources, whether protective (as in guarding) or financial (as in breeding or possibly fighting)” which she inaccurately claims is inherent to black or latino culture. She further argues that rescuers who want dogs to be adopted to “those who will treat their dog as a family member” and will “care for their dog at a high level for the duration of the dog’s life” are using dogs “as instruments for reproducing whiteness.” 

This argument has been embraced, in part, by Kevin Morris and his team at the University of Denver Institute for Human-Animal Connection. In a recent paper, they call for “removing adoption requirements,” which they view as part of “the White dominant culture.” Like Guenther, Morris et al. ignore that rescuers and shelters have a moral and institutional obligation to the vulnerable animals they serve to ensure those animals are not placed in harm’s way; which can and should be done using standards that don’t focus on a potential adopter’s skin color or size of their bank account, but on their ability to provide for an animal’s physical and mental health. Ignoring this obvious point, the authors of that paper, as did Guenther before them, suggest that rescuers and shelters are obligated to place animals into knowingly unstable situations (which they incorrectly equate with skin color) or engage in what they deem to be racist behavior. Those tasked with caring for animals are damned either way.

Morris also calls for reducing, and in some cases eliminating, enforcement of laws aimed at preventing animal mistreatment, by arguing that such laws, including laws meant to ban continuous chaining of dogs in backyards and “regulations for adequate care of animals” to prevent abuse and neglect, “criminalize individuals experiencing poverty and people of color who have pets” and are “largely unobtainable for anyone in the US other than white, middle and upper-class individuals.” Like Rowan and Arluke, they call for cruelty officers to engage with “marginalized populations in a culturally competent manner” and call on municipal animal shelters and other agencies to embrace a model for enforcement that “emphasizes person-centered approaches…”

They have it backward. Some ways of relating to animals are better than others. Determining which does not start with the skin color of the person the animal is connected to, but objective norms rooted in the animal’s biology and Enlightenment values, including the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Feeding a dog daily is better than feeding a dog two times per week; letting a dog sleep in the house is better than chaining or keeping the dog outside 24 hours a day, seven days a week; providing professional veterinary care is better than untested “cultural” remedies; and treating dogs tenderly is better than fighting a dog to see if he can kill the other; all examples cited by either Morris, Rowan, Arluke, or Guenther. These are not white values; they are ways of relating to animals that increase the well-being of dogs and cats, and therefore, should be afforded to all of them, irrespective of the ethnicity, gender, race, or class of the human with whom they live. In other words, the animal protection movement must embrace an animal-centered approach. Arguing otherwise isn’t animal advocacy; it is its antithesis. 

Second, as used by critical race theorists, cruelty is confused with “culture.” As such, “culturally competent” is a euphemism for creating a privileged class of animal abuser by subordinating the rights of animals to the interests of those who harm them, undermining the central tenet of the animal protection movement and leaving animals in danger. That is something we should never do.

To their credit, Morris et al., correctly argue that punitive approaches are often counterproductive, such as in enforcing licensing laws, pet limit laws, leash laws, and similar animal control ordinances that tend to be poor proxies for animal protection and often are not about protection at all, an argument I made over a decade ago in my 2008 book Redemption. But anti-tethering laws and other neglect statutes do protect animals. And they do so by setting out minimum standards of care and proscribing conduct that falls below it. They criminalize animal mistreatment, not poverty as Morris claims, and contrary to his claims, they are hardly mutually exclusive with dogs and cats in black households. Any arguments to the contrary not only throw the baby out with the bathwater, they bear little resemblance to how people of color feel about or treat animals. 

There are, of course, more effective or less effective ways to help animals kept in compromised circumstances and Morris is likewise correct that there are times that education and subsidized services will achieve the desired outcome better than citations, which I have also argued elsewhere. Aside from dog fighting and other abuse which should always lead to rescue/seizure, arrest, and prosecution (something Morris likewise argues, but Rowan, Arluke, and Guenther do not), we want the other behaviors to change, through education and pro bono services if possible or need be (as in cases of extreme poverty), but prosecution if necessary because the welfare of animals is of consequence. But this has nothing to do with skin color, “cultural competence,” eliminating adoption standards, or deregulating care standards as Morris recommends. Once again, doing so is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It also puts animals at increased risk.

In 1974, at a time when “shelters” were killing over 15 million animals a year — roughly 90% of all intakes — then-American Humane Association President Rutherford Phillips gave a speech to his fellow leaders in the animal welfare movement arguing against treating people equally. Calling for stringent adoption standards, he said that only certain kinds of potential adopters were worthy of having pets. To prove his point, he claimed — in a speech reeking with racist overtones — that past adoptions in “ghetto areas” were a failure, and that these dogs were now doing little more than “attacking children in schoolyards.” 

Since then, the number of animals killed has declined by 90%, with millions of Americans now living in communities served by municipal shelters that are finding homes for upwards of 99% of animals. These communities are large and small, urban and rural, red and blue, affluent and impoverished, homogenous and racially diverse. But almost half a century later, the ghost of Rutherford Phillips is rearing its ugly head once again.

While some critical race theorists are arguing for the elimination of adoption and responsibility standards and others are excusing perpetual chaining, backyard breeding, and even dogfighting, they are basing it on the same fetid premise: that even reasonable standards are too high for black people, because they are supposedly different, lesser, incapable of providing high levels of care, love, and attention. It is the other side of the same ugly coin.

In the wake of the protests over the death of George Floyd, organizations across the country have looked for ways to express solidarity with the cause of civil rights and animal welfare groups are no exception. But we should not confuse the racist tropes and cruel policies peddled by some with the cause of animal protection (or human dignity). They not only threaten to undermine decades of past progress, they threaten future progress, too. Their combined advocacy for subordinating the welfare of animals to the interests of the people they are connected to is incompatible with advancing animal rights. 

As philosopher David Pearce writes, “Over the last century, a welfare state for humans was introduced in Western European societies so that the most vulnerable members of our own species wouldn’t suffer avoidable hardship.” “The problem,” as he notes, “is not just that existing welfare provision is inadequate: it’s also arbitrarily species-specific. In common with the plight of vulnerable humans before its introduction, the welfare of vulnerable non-human animals depends mostly on private charity. No universal guarantees of non-human well-being exist.” They should and they invariably will.

How soon that day comes will be determined by how well the animal protection movement stays focused on the means by which we have already achieved so much, and whether or not we allow our attention and energies to be fruitlessly diverted by academics trying to purchase professional notoriety peddling a faddish, but irrational, critical race theory, at the cost of the welfare, rights, and even the lives of animals.