A walk in the park
A day at the dog park could explain why Michael Vick's punishment became racially charged
This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
A FEW YEARS AGO, WHEN AMERICA first put Michael Vick in the doghouse, then in the pound, I found myself babysitting dogs in New York City. I had also started a blog, the Assimilated Negro, and the coincidental perfect storm of technology, theme and topicality was overwhelming. Dog walking is humbling work, no matter how often you remind yourself that you're outside, getting exercise and paying your rent, and that the dog is not the boss of you. It's impossible not to think: Well, if I had my own way, I would not pick up any poop. Maybe that of my children. Maybe. But definitely not crap from an Airedale who technically may be the boss of me.
If you ever find yourself as a black man picking up dog poop and watching the mob descend on another black man over dogs, you too might start feeling insecure. Sure, dogfighting is life-and-death business. But when Americans work themselves into a furor over a species that has yet to hold public office, then change the channel when more trenchant social matters come up, like, say, the unjust incarceration rate for young black men, you can't help wondering who's really winning in America: you or the Airedale? Vick's actions were horrible. But to the African-American community, this became an issue about race because it felt like a line had been drawn that protects dogs but not us. To mimic the black friend from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," we were putting the puppy on a pedestal. Disagree? Here are some lessons from a dog's eye view.
Lesson No. 1: A racist dog snarling at you will erase any high-minded notions of Postracial America.
The most primal form of racism seems to come from the animal world. I've had cats leave, dogs growl and birds flap their wings to get away from me. (Okay, not that last one.) Yes, sometimes a cat just leaves, per its usual schedule. But there are circumstances that clearly scream RACIST ANIMAL ALERT. For example: Four white people (two men, two ladies) in a living room, and you, the only black dude, come in and the cat gives you the once-over, then leaves. If humans snubbed people in such obvious fashion, it would be unacceptable. But the cat gets giggles for acting like Sandra Bullock in "Crash"?
My worst experience was when, as a dog walker, I went to meet a new "client." All I'd heard was how friendly this Labrador was; everybody loved him, just the happiest-go-lucky dog you've ever seen. Next thing you know, the Lab is growling at me like: Oh, hell no. We upper crust, son. Ain't no black dude walking me. You gonna have to walk your ass up out of here by your lonesome. Long-story-that-spans-the-history-of-America-into-one-paragraph short: They had to replace me with a white dog walker. I would see the new guy at the dog park and we'd make jokes about it.
Except I was the one who would also cry about it later. I cry about it now. Who knew such an obvious case of losing-your-job-'cause-you're-black could still happen without anything being said or done? Heartbreaking. And it leaves me a little predisposed to wanting that Lab to experience a little rejection for no good reason except the color of his fur.
Lesson No. 2: Some dogs can hail a cab easier than a black dude.
The primal nature of Cujo's hatred is heartbreaking because it underscores the psychological freight humans add to racism. For dogs, it's an instinctive reaction to the unknown. They may have never seen a black person. That may make us a foreign and perhaps dangerous element. Think ALF. But for humans confronted with someone different, there is a next step that often adds presumed socioeconomic info, creating a more complex and toxic equation. This is how a person with a cute Yorkie gets a cab easier than a black dude with a puffy North Face on.
I saw some blogs go satirical with their take on Vick, posting wistfully about their secret desire to wake up transformed into a lapdog. Funny 'cause it's true? It's a dangerous line of thinking, I know, extremist and emotional. But it's easier to get there when the country's privileged gather in self-righteous solidarity about dogs while ignoring what remains a beleaguered status quo for the black community. You can't blame the dogs for being cute, but it seems unjust when the rewards of class and privilege become an entitlement for a whole other species. Did we win the battle for Obama only to lose the war with dogs?
Lesson No. 3: Dogs are a perfect symbol for race relations in America.
As a dog walker -- excommunicated by a racist dog, a servant to others, watching the country go from red-hot to ice cold on the subject of Michael Vick -- it was impossible not to see how dogs are the perfect prism through which to view American race relations. If you're down with the dogs-are-people-too thing, they highlight our class distinctions as clearly as Lady and the Tramp. On the flip side, they can show us that the basest animal instinct when defensive is to growl and bark. That's nature. Being uncomfortable around people who are different isn't necessarily wrong. It's what comes next that hurts: dismissive laughter, cabs whizzing by, people basing their opinion of you on what they see on TV. We are a country too entangled in race and class issues, a country that could benefit, perhaps, from a trip to the dog park -- where our four-legged and two-legged friends stand side by side -- if only to understand how a black person might get uptight when someone like Vick goes from pariah to messiah because of his ability to throw a football. Some of us aren't so lucky; we only know how to blog, pick up poop (maybe) and instinctively avoid sniffing other people's behinds when at the park.
Patrice Evans writes under the pen-name The Assimilated Negro..