Dog Show! : Code Switch On this episode, we're hanging out with pups. First, is Kat's anxious dog Samson really just a little beagle bigot? Then, the author Bronwen Dickey and the political scientist Michael Tesler explain how the pitbull transformed from America's most beloved sidekick to a doggo non grata.

Dog Show!

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What's good, y'all? This is Gene, and it's that time of the year again, the time of the year when you're thinking about giving, you know, getting something nice for your mom or your uncle or your little ones or for bae. Aw, aren't you so sweet? Well, since you're in that spirit right now of giving, consider this a little nudge to give to your local public radio station.

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This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


MERAJI: And that right there is Samson Chow. We're going to hear from him shortly because on this episode, we're asking what, if anything, can dogs tell us about our racial biases? My co-host, Gene Demby, is going to school me on pit bulls. But before we get into that, Kat Chow's with me in studio with our first dog tale.

Hey, Kat.


MERAJI: I've never met Samson, but I follow you on social media, so I feel like I know him so very well.

CHOW: Yes.

MERAJI: For those in our audience who don't stalk you on Instagram like I do, describe your fur baby for everybody.

CHOW: So Samson - he is super cute, probably the cutest dog (laughter).

MERAJI: Besides Lola (ph). That's my dog. She's really cute.

CHOW: I'm sorry - besides Lola. They're both cute. So he's a beagle mix, and he's got these really big, brown eyes. And I got him when he was a year old from this rescue in D.C. And they told me that he was a stray. And the thing about Samson is that he is so needy, and he's super cuddly with me and my partner, but he's not that way with everyone. Take it from one of his old dog walkers, George Leonard (ph). George says on walks, Samson is very, very vocal.


GEORGE LEONARD: There was, like, this group of guys right at 1st and Q.


LEONARD: They would, like, be around motorcycles. He would bark at those people.


LEONARD: He would bark FedEx and UPS people.


LEONARD: There was a guy - he had, like, a truck full of junk.


LEONARD: He would bark at him whenever he was moving stuff.


LEONARD: I mean, he would bark at people on bikes. He'd bark at people in motorized chairs.


LEONARD: He hates everything.

CHOW: He's classist. He's ableist.


CHOW: He's ageist. He's racist.


MERAJI: But why racist, though? Samson just sounds grumpy.

CHOW: I mean, he is grumpy. Part of the reason why I, you know, was wondering if Samson is racist in the first place is because when I first tried to adopt him, the foster told me that Samson doesn't like men in hoodies.

MERAJI: So I'm to assume that Samson would be super scared of Mark Zuckerberg if he passed you two on the sidewalk.

CHOW: (Laughter) You know, when I heard this, when the foster said he's afraid of men in hoodies, what I heard was Samson's actually just afraid of black men. And the thing about Samson is that he barks at everyone, but, I swear to God, he barks, like, more and more relentlessly and won't stop at our black friends or our friends who have darker skin. I've always wondered, is Samson racist? Can a dog even be racist? I mean, I don't want a racist dog.

MERAJI: No, who would?

CHOW: Yeah. So to figure that out, Samson and I go on this road trip to New Haven.

Yale University has this thing called the Canine Cognition Center, which has a bunch of different studies that they're trying out right now that are all in their very early stages, that's basically trying to figure out if, first of all, dogs can categorize people based on race and if they have preferences or prejudices. You know, this seemed like the perfect test for Samson, so I try and enroll him.

Samson, let's go. Hi.



CHOW: This is Samson.


CHOW: Hi. I'm Kat. We're a little - we can just hang out here and get him comfortable, if that's cool.



CHOW: And hey - sorry.


MERAJI: Oh, Samson.

CHOW: Yeah, I know. So the head researcher is Laurie Santos.

SANTOS: Some of my friends think I'm just playing with cute dogs all the time, but really I would describe it as trying to come up with studies so that we can figure out more how dogs think about the world and whether they think about the world in the same way that humans do.

CHOW: In order to figure out if dogs think similarly, she doesn't only study dogs. She studies people, too, so she studied me, and she made me take this implicit association test, which basically helps us understand biases.

MERAJI: Oh, Kat, I would be very nervous.

CHOW: (Laughter) Yeah, it was not fun.

SANTOS: I'll let you sit here and hop in.

CHOW: OK. All right. You have selected the race task in this study. You will complete an implicit association test.

I'm sitting in front of a computer, and I'm asked to tap certain keys as these words flash on the screen...

Happy, evil, dirty...

...All in rapid succession, and I'm supposed to say whether the word poison, for example, is good or bad.

Humiliate - I guess humiliate could be good if you're evil (laughter).

And then the test changes. It gets harder. Faces that are black or white are added to the mix, and I'm supposed to tap on the keys to say if those faces are black or white.

Oops, that is a white person.

SANTOS: So Kat is seeing a stream of different stimuli. Some are words that are either good or bad, and some are faces that are either African-American or white faces.

CHOW: I'm getting flustered (laughter). This is, like (laughter)...

SANTOS: The categorizations should be really obvious. It's obvious whether words are talking about something positive or negative. And it's easy to tell the difference between these faces. What's hard is that you have to do both the word categorization and the face categorization on the same keys. And the question is whether or not it's easier to do both categorizations when the white faces are on the same key as all the positive words versus when the black faces are on the same key as all the positive words.

MERAJI: If it's hard to visualize, don't worry. You can Google implicit association test, and you, too, can take this test.

SANTOS: At the end of the test, they'll show you the range of biases that you see in American society, and, sadly, you'll find that most people are biased.

MERAJI: So how are you biased, Kat?


MERAJI: No pressure.

CHOW: Yeah, no pressure at all. Well, here's just what the results said.

Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for black people over white people.

SANTOS: So you're actually showing a result that's different than what most Americans show. So you have less of a white bias than many of the participants who go to this site. You might also have been skewing your results a little bit because you're on radio while you're doing it.

MERAJI: What if you have a Latino bias or what if you have a, you know, Asian bias? These tests seem to be still in that black-white binary.

CHOW: Yeah, no, there's actually another test that I took where you're supposed to track whether someone looks foreign or is American, and that looks at Asian and white people, so there's a ton of different tests.

MERAJI: OK. Back to your racist dog.

CHOW: As I finish the test, Laurie interrupts me.

SANTOS: I think our dog is here right now, so we can walk outside and grab him. And here we have Vader (ph) coming in. Welcome, Vader, hello.

CHOW: Hi, Vader.

Vader is this really sweet, wiggly dog, a pit mix, and he is here to take the dog version of an implicit association test. So they take Vader into this small and basically empty room.

SANTOS: When dogs and their guardians come in, the guardian's asked to sit in a corner, on a chair in a corner, and the dog will sit right in front of the guardian. About a few feet in front of the dog, an experimenter sits down holding a white box that seems to be covered up. What we're going to show dogs is a stream of images that includes both faces, white and black, and also dog faces that are either positive or negative. We can't show dogs positive and negative words, so we show them positive and negative dog expressions - a very happy, kind of smiling dog and an aggressive, barking dog. And the question is how similar are those two categories for dogs? Vader will see first a face and, in this case, he's going to be seeing the category of African-American faces, so he'll see that for 10 seconds.


SANTOS: And then on the second trial...


SANTOS: ...He'll see a photo of a happy dog. And what we'll do is we'll compare Vader's performance with a different dog who saw, say, white faces and happy dogs.

CHOW: Laurie is basically watching to see how the dog is reacting, whether they're really fixated on what's happening or whether they get kind of bored. And to be clear, when we say it's the dog version of the implicit association test, you know, that's kind of this, like, oversimplification because, you know, Laurie is trying to figure out if dogs can even just categorize people more generally - like, man, woman, black, white, that kind of thing.


CHOW: And the test that Vader's taking right now that you're hearing, you know, he's not going to get his results for a long time because Laurie has to compare it with other dogs and their data. If they find that dogs can categorize people, then they're going to try and see if dogs can even form these lasting biases.

MERAJI: But the reason we came here in the first place, the reason you went to Yale, is to see if Samson's racist.


CHOW: Unfortunately (laughter) surprise, surprise, Samson is not Ivy League material. Laurie sent me an email the next day saying that he was just too anxious to be a part of the study.

MERAJI: That totally sucks because you'd think dogs like Samson are exactly who they'd want to figure out, right?

CHOW: Yeah, that's exactly what I was thinking, but I guess - I don't know. Maybe they were afraid he was going to bite them. He's never bitten anyone - never - not yet.

MERAJI: I'm so glad to hear that.

CHOW: But outside of her research, Laurie thinks that dogs can actually teach us a lot about human behavior. They can help us sniff out our own biases.

SANTOS: There's a big debate in the field about whether some of our biases are taught or whether we see them in the world, on the news. You know, maybe we get these negative attitudes toward certain groups because of the things we see on the news. Or maybe it's the subtle, nonverbal cues we get from the people around us.

You know, if people in an elevator with a different race person tense up just a little bit, dogs can't pay attention to the first two things. You know, they're not learning from what they see on the news or from anything explicit that people tell them. But they might pay a lot of attention to the nonverbal cues they get from the guardians and the people around us. And so in that sense, dogs provide this cool test for how humans learn their own biases, as well.

MERAJI: Because he's a rescue, we don't know Samson's history. But it is pretty clear that he came to you with a lot of anxiety issues, probably from his previous owner. I mean, guardian.

CHOW: (Laughter) Yeah.

MERAJI: Guardian. I'm going to use that. I love guardian.

CHOW: Yeah. Guardian's good. To be honest, though, Shereen, you know, I might make it worse. I'm nervous on walks or, you know, when he meets new people, that he's going to bark. And he gets tense and nervous as a result.

MERAJI: Is there anything else that you think you do that prompts him toward his bad behavior?

CHOW: Yes (laughter). Since we're being honest, I guess. I'm embarrassed to admit that sometimes I give him treats to shut him up when he's barking at people.

MERAJI: Oh, that's really bad.

CHOW: Yeah. I got to stop that.


CHOW: So back to Laurie. Once this study gets more traction, Laurie says she might have all the guardians of these dogs take that computer test I took. And then, eventually, she might also analyze what zip codes the dogs and their guardians live in.

MERAJI: Aha. Hashtag #housingsegregationineverything?

CHOW: Yeah. Exactly. This all tracks, by the way, with what George, Samson's old dog walker, told me. So George is black. George is a certified dog behaviorist now. And they were telling me sometimes their clients come to them and say, hey, my dog is racist.

LEONARD: I think it's a really funny thing to say to a black person. I think it's an interesting look at the human itself - right? - rather than looking inward and saying, what am I doing to foster the responses my dog is giving? And if you're allowing your very, like, imperceptible tics on your walk inform your dog of how to behave, then that's what it is.

CHOW: So I asked George, do you think Samson's racist?

LEONARD: If Samson were a human, he would probably be racist because everyone's racist. I don't think Samson, the dog, is racist.

CHOW: My very loose interpretation of this all is that all dogs are good dogs, and if we want to help them stay good dogs, we got to work on being good humans.

MERAJI: We're going to take a pause. That's P-A-W-S. But when we come back, it's pit bull time.


MERAJI: Shereen - just Shereen - CODE SWITCH. And here's Gene.

DEMBY: So, Shereen, since we're talking about dogs, I know you are a dog person.

MERAJI: I am. I've always been a dog person, by the way, because, growing up, my Tita Laura (ph) and my grandparents watched me when my parents were at work, and there were dogs. Like, my Tita Laura had a German shepherd named Champ (ph).

DEMBY: Champ.

MERAJI: I called him Champi (ph) Champi.

DEMBY: Champi.

MERAJI: And I used to sleep in his little dog house. And then my grandparents had two dogs. They had Feo and Tiny.

DEMBY: You all really named the dog Ugly?

MERAJI: Yes, they did. And it should have been reversed because Tiny was this ugly little, tiny little white poodle, and Feo was this big, loving, hairy, mutt of a dog.

DEMBY: Guapo.

MERAJI: So loving. But I never actually had a dog in my immediate home because my dad was not down with dogs. So I asked for a dog, and I never got one. And it actually wasn't until I was in my 30s that I got my first real dog for myself.

DEMBY: That's your dog now, Lola.

MERAJI: Yes. Lola, my Lolita (ph). She's, like, a Chihuahua mix. She's so cute. She's so loving. She's the biggest lover.


MERAJI: Anyway, I could talk about dogs forever.

DEMBY: I hated dogs growing up. I've never had a dog. See, I couldn't stand even being around dogs until I was grown, like, up until fairly recently. Like, I don't freak out around dogs at all now, but when I was a kid, I always thought all dogs - whether it was a Chihuahua (laughter), like your Lola, or, like, a Rottweiler - I thought the dog was trying to kill me.

MERAJI: Oh, wow.

DEMBY: I hated them growing up. There was this house next door to me. I lived on this block called Mole Street in Philadelphia and, you know, little row houses. And there was an alley, a gated alley, next door. In this alley was this big ass German shepherd. I mean, I was like 6, right? This dog is bigger than me. It was this big ass German shepherd named King. And every time I would walk past this alley, on the way to and from school, King would just, like, lunge at me. Like, rar-rar-rar (ph).

MERAJI: And scare you every time.

DEMBY: Every time. And so, like, I would, like, cross the street to, like, (laughter) to walk past this alley. I was, like, terrified of this dog. And I grew up in the hood, so, like, they were just Beware Of Dog signs in people's, like, windows and their screen doors all the time, even if there weren't dogs in the house. Like, I'd be in their house, and I'd be scared because they would have the signs in their door. But it was just there to scare us, right? And so, like, I always associated dogs with, like, fear.

MERAJI: See, I'm the opposite. I wasn't afraid of any dogs until recently. There was this incident at a party at my friend's house. And their blue nose pit got really aggressive with Lola.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

MERAJI: And ever since then, whenever I'm with Lola and there's a pit bull in the vicinity, I get really anxious. I tense up. I can feel it. And I wish that wasn't the case, but I'm really anxious if she's there and a pit bull's around.

DEMBY: A lot of people are scared of pit bulls, specifically. And I'm about to tell you why and what that has to do with race.

MERAJI: Yay, I think.

DEMBY: So this summer, I was reading this book. It's called "Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon." And it's all about the way people feel about this breed.

BRONWEN DICKEY: It's not a breed. It's a shape.

DEMBY: Oh. My bad. My bad. It's a shape.

MERAJI: It's a shape?

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yes.


DEMBY: That's Bronwen Dickey. She wrote that book, "Pit Bull." And Bronwen said we all kind of throw this term around, pit bull. We just thought around all willy-nilly, right?

DICKEY: We don't refer to hounds as a breed. We don't refer to shepherds as a breed. I mean, we will say a German shepherd or a, you know, foxhound or something like that. But when the term gets so elastic and people kind of throw it around so much - and we all do it. I do it. I mean, what did I even write a book about? The book isn't called "The American Pit Bull Terrier." It's called "Pit Bull," right? It's as much of an idea as it is a label.


DEMBY: So this label sort of is big and expansive, and there are four popular breeds that generally make up the category that falls under this label that we call pit bull. First is the American pit bull terrier, which she just mentioned.

DICKEY: And those were a pedigreed line of fighting dogs.

DEMBY: And there was the American Staffordshire terrier.

DICKEY: An offshoot of the American pit bull terrier. And those dogs were bred as show dogs and pets.

DEMBY: And then there's the Staffordshire bull terrier.

DICKEY: Which is a much smaller version, more popular in the U.K. And they are also show dogs and pet dogs.

DEMBY: And, of course, you have the American bully.

DICKEY: They are the most recent addition to the family, and they are known to be the most kind of slow and couch-loving of the tribe.

MERAJI: (Laughter) The American one.

DEMBY: (Laughter) The American one, of course, right? The boundaries of what is a pit bull and what is not a pit bull - those boundaries are really squishy.

MERAJI: That makes sense because it's a social construct.

DEMBY: Ah-ha, I see what you did there. So some history about pit bulls - we don't know when people started trying to breed these different kinds of dogs that we call pit bulls today. But Bronwen said that dog breeding became a very specific enterprise sometime in the mid-1800s. It was around the time of the publication of a book that you've probably heard of. It was Charles Darwin's landmark, "The Origin Of Species."

DICKEY: Darwin's work stirred up this much greater awareness and appreciation for natural selection and the ways that traits could be inherited. He didn't have the, you know, finely tuned understanding of genetics that would come later, but he did talk about the selection of traits and all these things. So it was something that caused a huge stir and massive controversy in the way people understood science and the natural world and their relationship to it.

So what you see is a huge increase in the popularity of animal breeding, which had existed before, but especially dog breeding, pedigree dog breeding, exploded in popularity, especially with the gentry and the wealthy, as this form of almost, like, taking an animal and turning it into a living sculpture.

DEMBY: Bronwen said that Darwin's book came out the very same year of the very first ever dog show.


DEMBY: 1859 in Newcastle, England.

MERAJI: Coincidence? I'm not sure (laughter).

DEMBY: Right. And so this fascination that people had about breeding out the worst traits in dogs, it was all happening at the same time that people wanted to do the same thing with actual human beings.

MERAJI: Eugenics.

DEMBY: Exactly.

DICKEY: When the social Darwinists latched onto that, and they thought, well, you know, if we, as a species, are subject to the same laws of nature, then let's just engineer this society the way we want it. Let's just engineer out sickness. Let's engineer out mental illness. And, of course, along with that, came, let's engineer out different races of people, so that we can have this, I guess, you know, healthy, blond, white society. But they had human shows, like dog shows, the fitter family contests in the Midwest.

MERAJI: Human shows? Fitter family contests?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: I'm sorry, but what does that even look like?

DEMBY: It was like these weird things at these state fairs where, like, families would compete to be measured in all these ways, and they would be measured on their - I guess for lack of a better word - their pedigree. And the best families - I'm doing air quotes - the best families would get trophies and medals that said, yay, I have a goodly heritage.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Are you making that up? Is that real?

DEMBY: This is ridiculous. And it's absolutely real.

MERAJI: Yay, I have a goodly heritage?

DEMBY: That's a weird flex. Yes.

DICKEY: They were, you know, measuring heads and checking teeth and looking at the person's medical records and seeing which illnesses they had had.

MERAJI: I'm surprised that this is the first time I'm hearing about these fitter family contests.

DEMBY: Oh, I'd never heard about these either, which is crazy, right? But they're so bizarre. But these weird ass contests, they lasted until the 20th century. And they were part of this presentation of status, right? Your health and breeding was the same kind of project as your dog's health and breeding.

DICKEY: So you had the dogs of the landed gentry, so the dogs of people who had large estates for hunting. So you have your Labradors and your setters and your retrievers.

DEMBY: But pit bull type dogs - right? - for the most part, they were just considered dumb and savage. But then there was this period...


DEMBY: ...For a little while, when pit bulls were, like, mad popular. They were the dogs of the proletariat.

DICKEY: During the Depression was kind of the height of the iconic pit bull in America, which was understandable because of how America thought about its own working people. You had Petey from "The Little Rascals" as, you know, kind of a big Hollywood star. And so you had all these people from different walks of life getting more interested in them and just kind of taking them on as unfussy kind of sidekick pets.

DEMBY: They were even in, like, propaganda photos during World War II. You would see a pit bull with a red-white-and-blue kerchief around its neck, urging people to support the war effort.


MERAJI: So how did they go from, you know, these hard-working, no frills, down-to-earth sidekicks for the American working class to totally vicious public menaces?

DEMBY: Well, Bronwen said that after World War II, Americans started moving out to the suburbs. Well...

MERAJI: Certain Americans.

DEMBY: White Americans.


DEMBY: You know, they were living that 1950s life. They got their house. You know, they got the white picket fence. You got your state-of-the-art washer and dryer. Maybe you got you a television set. You were the very picture of aspirational all-American middle-class life. Well, not you or me (laughter). We wouldn't have been in those suburbs. But another symbol of your arrival in your racially segregated suburb was your big purebred dog, like a Labrador retriever or something, with some stamp that was certifying its pedigree, so you could play fetch on your manicured, whites-only lawn.


MERAJI: So the pit bull didn't make it to the suburbs, I'm assuming.

DEMBY: No. (Laughter) They left the pit bull behind.

MERAJI: Hashtag #HousingSegregation in absolutely everything.

DEMBY: Everything.

MERAJI: Sorry. Did I just break the mic with that yelling?


DICKEY: At the end of the '60s, so much had happened in cities, so much had happened in urban neighborhoods. There was massive deindustrialization, and the economy bottomed out, and people were losing their jobs, and there was hardly any police protection in various urban neighborhoods and big cities; lots and lots of unrest and uprisings in Watts, in Chicago and various other places.

And people were terrified. And so if you don't feel that the police are going to protect you, and you feel that, you know, violence is happening all around and things are chaotic, and you don't know what to do, and you can't afford to move, at that point, you got a dog.

DEMBY: So the people in the city got dogs to protect themselves. And the white people in the suburbs started looking at the people in the city and their dogs and started associating all of their anxieties about those people onto their dogs.


DEMBY: And Bronwen calls pit bulls just, like, the Honda Civic of dogs. Like, they're just - they're cheap. They're readily available. And they're smaller than purebred protector dogs like, you know, a Rottweiler or something, right? So if you live in a city, if you wanted a pet, whether it was to protect your house or just as a pet, it was more than likely going to be a pit bull or some kind of pit bull mix.

MERAJI: Right. In LA, if you go to a shelter looking for a dog right now, you're most likely leaving with either a pit bull, a pit mix, a Chihuahua or Chihuahua mix. And if you want protection, you're not going to go home with a Chihuahua. Although, I will say they are fierce, fierce little dogs (laughter).

DEMBY: Yeah. They really are. So anyway, by the 1970s and 1980s, there was all this panic around inner cities and drugs and gangs and dogfighting. And the pit bull became the face of this panic around dogfighting and ghettos. And that garnered all these pit bull-type dogs a certain sinister reputation.


DICKEY: They let the rhetoric run wild. So they implied that all pit bulls were fighting dogs, and therefore they were all innately violent. They were all innately unpredictable. They were kind of the canine super predator. Sure, are there specific family lines where they have been controlled for a really long time, and they're selected for more athleticism or more energy or whatever? Yeah. Sure. But to then extrapolate that to all the dogs that have this vague shape is ridiculous. It's like saying, you know, that the Navy SEALs represent all American men.

DEMBY: There were all these claims that pit bulls had been around for thousands of years, that they'd been bred specifically to be aggressive and fight. None of that was true.

MERAJI: What about their jaws? I've always heard that a pit bull can lock its jaws down and never let go of what it's got, and they have the strongest jaws of all the dog breeds.

DEMBY: I heard that growing up all the time, too. Bronwen says no. That's just another myth about pit bulls that's completely unfounded. Pit bull jaws work like every other dog jaws. They're just jaws. But anyway, with, like, the rise of hip-hop, you have rappers who started to lean into this notion of these dangerous city dogs. They started to have dogs in their videos. They became a symbol of a kind of inner-city toughness.

MERAJI: And if anyone's watched as much Cesar Millan as I have, they will know that in the '90s, he ended up with Redman's pit bull.


CESAR MILLAN: Daddy belonged to Redman, a rapper. And I remember Red said - Cesar, I just don't want my dog to get me into trouble, meaning he didn't want a liability. He didn't want a lawsuit.

DICKEY: You have pit bulls on the cover of DMX's "Grand Champ."


DMX: Yep, yep, yep. Nothing like that dog love, I'll tell you - not just any dog, got to be a pit bull.


MISSY ELLIOTT: (Rapping) I'm Missy on the microphone.

DICKEY: You have pit bulls on the cover of Missy Elliott albums. Ice-T famously rapped that he had a pit bull named Felony.


ICE-T: (Rapping) I got property. Got a dope pit bull named Felony.


DICKEY: Eve, at one point, referred to herself as a pit bull in a skirt.

DEMBY: Pit bull in a skirt, yep.

DICKEY: That's right.


EVE: (Rapping) Pit bull in a skirt, making them hurt. Haters...

DEMBY: So pit bulls have been represented very violently in the media for a long time. And that's true even today. So there's a study that looked at news stories about dogs between 2009 and 2017. And it found that there were 60,000 violent stories about pit bulls.


MICHAEL TESLER: And that dwarfs anything else. The next closest is, like, 2,900 for Rottweilers.

DEMBY: That's Michael Tesler. He's a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and he conducted that study. He's also writing a book about what pit bulls can teach us about prejudice and politics. And full disclosure, Shereen, Michael is very much the pit bull partisan.

TESLER: They're amazing (laughter). They are, like, the coolest dog in the history of the world. They're called clown dogs because they really are just these sweet goofballs.


DEMBY: You seem unconvinced. But Michael said, like, look; if you look at the way that pit bulls are covered in the media, they are often linked very directly to black people. He said that race comes up way more often in news stories about pit bulls than it does in stories on any other kinds of dogs.

Both Michael and Bronwen pointed to this famous Sports Illustrated cover - or infamous, I guess, depending on your perspective. It's from the 1980s. And on the cover is this brindle pit bull with its teeth bared. It looks really scary. And it has this headline. It's like, "Warning: Beware Of This Dog," just like the signs I used to see in Philly when I was growing up.

And like, yo, why is this even on the cover of Sports Illustrated? What does it have to do with sports? But anyway, the title of that article, in the inside, was "The Pit Bull: Friend And Killer." The subhead was "Is The Pit Bull A Fine Animal, As Its Admirers Claim, Or Is It A Vicious Dog, Unfit For Society?"

MERAJI: Let me guess, the piece was full of dog whistles.

TESLER: Street thugs. There's very much a link between what we know about implicit attitudes and association with inner-city street gang crime and what that means in the minds of average white Americans, which is often coded for non-white - African-American, in particular - and how that's portrayed. And then in that article, one of the favorite is that it's hard to make a snap judgment about whether a pit bull is vicious or not, so the best thing that you can do is to make a judgment based upon the owner. And I think that that is pretty much code for - you know, is this owner white or not?

DEMBY: And Michael actually measured this connection between people's racial attitudes towards black people and the way they feel about pit bulls specifically. He says that the data shows that if you're the kind of person who says, like, I don't like interracial dating, you're also the kind of person who is more likely to be anti-pit bull. And like so many other things involving race, like that sentiment, that has real policy consequences for people.

MERAJI: Oh, Yeah. I believe it. I remember when I was looking for apartments in LA - and this was a few years back - there were a handful of landlords who said, my building's dog-friendly. You know, move in with your dog. But there were exceptions to that rule. And pit bulls were almost always one of the exceptions to that dog-friendly rule.

DEMBY: Right. And not just pit bulls but also, like, pit bull-like dogs. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: Yeah, right.

DEMBY: And there's city- and countywide bans just like that. They're usually called breed-specific legislation because they're specifically about certain breeds and usually about pit bulls in particular. And Michael said that the evidence shows that those bans are more than a little bit about race.

TESLER: In 2012, Miami-Dade County had a vote on whether they were going to keep or get rid of their pit bull ban. And we see a really strong correlation between the amount of whites who live in a precinct and support for the pit bull ban.

DEMBY: And Bronwen Dickey, who we heard from before, she said that these bans put very specific burns on the kinds of families with pit bulls as pets. You have to give up your dog, or you have to move out.


DEMBY: And she said that those bans are often kind of a proxy for redlining.

DICKEY: Yeah. I found one case - it was Sterling Heights, Mich. - where the city council proposed a breed ban against pit bulls. And there were people coming out and saying that that was being used to keep, quote, "certain types of people" from moving to Sterling Heights. So the quote from this one man was, "we have plenty of inner-city people here. They don't need to bring their dogs here."

DEMBY: So a weird thing, Shereen. Bronwen said that pit bulls have experienced this weird kind of reclamation from white dog lovers in the rescue community. You remember Mike Vick?

MERAJI: Of course, I remember him. He's a former football star. He played for your team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

DEMBY: Why you bring up old stuff? Well, before he was an Eagle, before he played for my team, in 2007, he went to prison for running a dogfighting ring with pit bulls.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The dogs were raised there to fight. Vick not only financed the operation but took part in gambling and that Michael Vick personally killed underperforming dogs by drowning and electrocution.

MERAJI: Damn. I didn't know he personally electrocuted dogs. I didn't know those horrible details.

DEMBY: I didn't remember that either. Anyway, that whole story was terrible, and it was awful. But Bronwen said that people were showing up at his court hearings to boo him, to protest him. And not long after the trial, Sports Illustrated, the same magazine that two decades before had that cover about the dangers of killer pit bulls, they ran a cover story called "Vick's Dogs" and it showed this cute brown pit bull with floppy ears with its head cocked to the side. It said her name was Sweet Jasmine and that she was one of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's dogfighting ring. And the story was about how Sweet Jasmine and the dogs like her had found new and more loving homes.


DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Very interesting.

DEMBY: Very, very interesting.

MERAJI: So after these pit bulls are abused by a black man, Sports Illustrated now sees them as these sweet little dogs in need of protection.

DEMBY: I mean...

MERAJI: Funny how that works.

DEMBY: Isn't it, though? Here's Bronwen again, though.

DICKEY: There was a T-shirt going around for a while that was pit bulls are for hugs, not thugs, which might play well in, you know, among suburbanites, but the message of that shirt is that there's a certain type of person who's OK to own a pit bull and there's a certain type of person who isn't.

MERAJI: This is making me so mad.

DEMBY: (Laughter) I know, right? Racism crazy, ain't it? But that Sports Illustrated story is kind of anomalous. So since Michael Vick, nothing has really changed in the way the media covers pit bulls. Michael Tesler, his study of the pit bull coverage in the media that we talked about before, that came after the Michael Vick case. And the stories about pit bulls in the news were consistently negative, he said. Like, there was no real change even from, like, month to month. So even if the rescue community is looking at pit bulls differently, the media is not doing that yet.

TESLER: In social science, one of the classic studies of prejudice is called contact hypothesis, meaning that a lot of prejudice is explained just by the fact that there is not much interaction across the racial line. And instead, where are you getting your information about people of other races, especially for whites? Where you're getting them from - media and culture that portrays racial groups in very stereotypical terms.

And this is the exact same parallel with pit bulls. We see an enormous correlation between the amount of interaction between pit bulls - you have with pit bulls and how you evaluate them. What's important is that that doesn't hold for other dog breeds. People like Labradors and golden retrievers regardless of whether they're hanging out with them. But for pit bulls, you got to know a pit bull, and this is the same as race. When you interact with a pit bull or with somebody of a racial group, you're going to see, hey, the way they're portrayed in the media is quite different than how they are in real life. Maybe I should update my opinions a little bit.

DEMBY: Somehow, though, I kind of feel like the stigma that is attached to black people is going to be much stickier than the stigma surrounding this breed of dog associated with black people.

DICKEY: It's not a breed. It's a shape.

DEMBY: My bad, Bronwen, my bad, my bad.


MERAJI: And that's our show. Special thanks to our former intern, Angelo Bautista. He did so much work on the pit bull part of this episode.

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. You can sign up for our newsletter at and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Kumari Devarajan and Steve Drummond. Mayowa Aina is our Kroc fellow, and our intern is Andrea Henderson. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.


DEMBY: So what is, like, the whitest dog?

TESLER: I would have to probably say Labrador.

DEMBY: Hey, y'all, this is just a reminder to donate. Keep showing your support for your local member station. Go to and give. That's

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