Is it possible to be for both human rights and animal rights? Can there be a movement or an alliance of movements that links the two? PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has just made it a whole lot harder, with its display of pictures of predominantly Black people being tortured, beaten, burned, sold and hanged, juxtaposed with animals in similar circumstances.
Some animal rights activists defend the exhibit with a kind of wide-eyed "but-it's-just-the-truth" innocence. Truth has context. A group of predominantly white people expropriating images of Black torment - images belonging to a sacred history of agony, survival, and resistance - for their own cause, however just, is a setback to both causes. Never heard of racist comparisons between people of color and animals? Think PETA gets a pass from white supremacy because it believes people and animals are equal? Think again.
In this world, the one we live in, the one in which white supremacy defines every aspect of people's day-to-day and moment-to-moment life outcomes, in this country in which white people live years longer and people of color are five times more likely to be in prison - nobody gets a pass. Certainly not white people in the heart of American privilege. Not if we are going to have a ghost of a chance to ever make any of it better for humans or animals.
Many anti-racist and human rights activists, including activists of color, accept and support the justice of fighting for animal rights. We are disproportionately vegetarians compared with more mainstream folks. But this is not the first time the predominantly white animal rights movement has created barriers to alliances and to interlocking the issues by using the language and symbolism of white supremacy and by indifference,insensitivity, or hostility to the struggles for justice for humans. An example is the throwaway line in the PETA display that the human injustices shown are "past." If you've seen the growing numbers of shackled prisoners (guess what color they are NOT) in the slave labor gangs sprouting up along U.S. roadsides, you know just how "past" these injustices are.
A world whose human power system is based on "might makes right," on the ruthless slaughter and violent exploitation of less powerful by more powerful humans, cannot possibly be a place of compassion (let alone
justice) for non-humans. That is not to say the struggle for animal rights should wait. It is to say that its success depends on taking its place alongside the radical human movements whose vision is of overthrowing the lords of inequality in the name of another kind of system altogether. The animal rights movement can only be part of that tide of liberation when it understands and takes a stand against white supremacy and racism.
The author is a long-time activist and vegetarian living in upstate New York.