African Americans’ Attitudes Toward Animals
Understanding our attitudes toward animals may help us understand why we tend to objectify them. For example, evidence shows that women are generally more pro-animal than men, although less is known about if and how race influences these attitudes. This paper considers the ways in which the experiences of African Americans and their ancestors may impact their attitudes toward animals.
In it, the researchers consider how the shared cultural experience of descending from enslaved ancestors may impact African Americans’ attitudes toward animals today. Historical evidence suggests that enslaved African Americans had warm relationships with animals they worked alongside. On the other hand, dogs were often used to prevent enslaved people from escaping captivity. The authors claim that such experiences may have passed down through generations, causing African Americans to have more positive or more negative attitudes toward animals.
The researchers also consider similarities in the treatment of enslaved people and animals. Like animals, enslaved people were considered a lower caste than white Americans. They were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment and denied intellect, morality, and sentience, as is often done to animals today.
The “underdog hypothesis” suggests that similar experiences of oppression can foster feelings of empathy and concern for others’ wellbeing. In this way, the authors argue, enslaved African Americans may have identified with the oppression of animals. This concern may have been passed to their descendants, although there is no evidence to validate this claim. As discussed by some prominent Black scholars in the animal advocacy movement, African Americans today may also feel this empathy due to the continued, interconnected injustices facing BIPOC folks and animals, and the work of animal and racial justice advocates in bringing these issues forward.
Indeed, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to believe that animals have an afterlife and to have more positive attitudes toward the ethical treatment of animals. Alternatively, the authors propose that the oppression of animals and enslaved people throughout history may cause African Americans to feel discomfort. To resolve this, they may place animals in a lower caste and disregard their moral worth. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance.” Today, African Americans are underrepresented in animal welfare fields. The authors suggest that continued experiences of discrimination may mean it’s necessary for African Americans to prioritize their own survival needs, leaving less room for concern for animals. (Note: The authors do not mention that a lack of BIPOC representation in animal welfare fields could also be a result of racial discrimination within the animal protection movement. See this study for evidence to this point.)
The researchers conducted two empirical studies looking at whether African Americans’ attitudes toward animals are positive or negative, and whether they are different to those of white Americans. Study 1 included 248 undergraduate students (27% African American, 73% white), while Study 2 included 41 older community members (56% African American, 44% white). In both studies participants responded to 9 statements, such as Animals can feel sad, and Animals really feel pain like people do. For each statement, participants selected a response between -3 (Strongly disagree) and +3 (Strongly agree).
Study 1 found a small but significant difference — white participants had more positive attitudes toward animals than African Americans did. In Study 2, a larger difference was found, but in the opposite direction — African Americans had more positive attitudes toward animals than white participants did. In both studies, income level had no effect. The authors claim that older African Americans may have displayed more positive attitudes than their younger counterparts as they may be closer in ancestry to enslaved people.
On balance, the authors argue that participants’ attitudes toward animals were more or less similar regardless of race, and that they were more positive than negative. From this, they argue that their results support the idea that African Americans may identify and empathize with animals due to their shared historical experiences of exploitation and victimization. This would lead to greater compassion in those descended from enslaved people.
There are some limitations to this paper and its conclusions. Most importantly, no participant was asked why they hold certain views about animals. While it’s possible that shared experiences of exploitation could account for African Americans’ positive attitudes toward animals, we cannot assume this is the case based on the data available. This is particularly true given that white Americans also had positive attitudes toward animals. For white participants, shared histories of oppression do not apply to the same extent, so it’s unclear how this reasoning can be applied to African American participants. In study 1, African Americans were actually less positive about animals than white Americans. Perhaps Americans may generally be disposed to like animals more than they dislike them, regardless of race or perception of shared experiences.
Regardless, using this narrative without sufficient evidence could be problematic. Although trauma passed through generations may affect the experiences of African Americans today, it seems difficult to conclude that the African American community compares its historical oppression to that of animals. To some, comparisons between enslaved people and animals could be viewed as offensive, and in this way could be a very ineffective route to advocacy. The researchers themselves do not argue that their conclusions should be applied to advocacy.
This paper raises an important question and provides an interesting perspective. Even so, when publicly promoting potentially controversial claims like the conclusion of this study, it’s important that we have enough evidence to back them up. In this case, more work is needed, as the researchers themselves acknowledge.