Attack Dogs and the History of Racial Violence

“Police Dogs” (Sergio, Flickr).

In 1970 French author Romain Gary published his novel White Dog, a semi-biographical work that imaginatively recreated the author’s experiences with American race relations in 1960s Southern California. Gary metaphorically uses a German Shepherd called “White Dog” to explore his own perception of the American racial divide, elucidating his own meditations surrounding how racial animus is acquired in the United States. The novel held two main protagonists. The first was Gary himself, as it is written in the first person and was, at least partially, an autobiography of his experiences. The second is “White Dog,” a “graying German Shepherd, aged about 6 or seven” that he rescued from a rain storm in 1968 (6). Though he eventually names him “Batka,” a Russian name meaning “little father,” Gary interchanges his given name with the appellation “White Dog” throughout the novel, subtly pointing toward its larger message about racial identity and his belief that Americans obsessed over outward appearances. Batka symbolized how a sentient being acquires racial hatred and the difficulty one finds when attempting to eliminate its racist predilections.

Though Batka was generally good-natured in his interactions with white people, he demonstrated a noticeable, albeit peculiar, inclination to attack people of African descent. Gary first noticed this behavior when a Black maintenance worker attempted to enter his residence, but Batka hurled himself at the gate “foaming at the mouth, in a paroxysm of hatred.” Gary tried to restrain the animal from lunging toward the visitor, noticing he never manifested such rage at unfamiliar visitors. It was apparent, however, that such reactions were deeply racialized, as White Dog displayed a prejudice against one racial group. White visitors to his residence were warmly greeted, but Black strangers, especially men, prompted fits of rage. Familiar with the use of interspecies violence that characterized American history, the African American men who encountered Batka knew the roots of his racist fury. Gary soon suspects the dog is racist, but is unsure how it is possible for a nonhuman to hold a socially-conditioned, human sentiment. He is eventually told by an animal trainer named Keys, described as a “Black Muslim,” that Batka was a “white dog” whose previous owner specifically conditioned him to hold anti-black hatred. White Dog likely hailed “from the South” and was a product of those canines specifically trained to help the police control Black people. Keys reveals that “white dog” is a specific appellation used among Black Americans to describe such animals, pointedly exclaiming, “that’s what we call ‘em,” (19).

Keys reveals an uncomfortable truth that, since puppyhood, Batka was inundated with negative images of Black people and his interactions with them were purposefully abusive, which reoriented his primal impulse to attack his victims solely based upon their racial identity. However, White Dog was not an aberration, as he explains that “In the old days, they trained them to track down runaway slaves [but]…We don’t run away any more. Now these dogs are used against us by scared cops,” (19-20). Keys admires the animal, as he presents a challenge to his skills in animal training. Gary hires Keys to undertake a reconditioning program, believing that White Dog can be cured of his anti-black racism.

Later in the novel he learns that Batka was originally named “Fido” and was owned by a family from Alabama who recently moved to Los Angeles. Seeing his ad in the newspaper, two children and their grandfather arrive at Gary’s house to claim the dog, and after an exchange of pleasantries, the older man reveals the animal belonged to his son, who trained police dogs in Alabama, and that the men in his family came from generations of law enforcement in the state. Suggesting that Batka was a German Shepherd who hailed from a police family in Alabama was no accident, as it connected him to the infamous moment when police dogs attacked protestors in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. Gary masks his true emotions throughout most of the conversation, as he hopes to force the man to admit the dog was trained in racist fashion. Playing with his emotions, Gary states he already gave Fido to a “Negro” and relocated the dog to Africa. Incensed at the idea, the grandfather threatens a lawsuit before walking away with two crying grandchildren. Gary is particularly troubled at the exchange, because the man seemed “as nice as God can make them,” but his social conditioning caused him to hold an internal, violent hatred for others solely based upon racial difference.

The novel proceeds to chronicle Gary’s interactions with Black Americans and his sense that, while friendly, they could never share racial solidarity. These interactions are largely critiquing aspects of Black radicalism overtaking certain sections of Black American political thought in the late-1960s, as he perceived a rising popularity among converts to the Nation of Islam and Black Panther Party throughout California. Ultimately, the story’s premise centralizes around Gary’s belief that American race relations were so tense that even canines were conditioned to “sense” racial difference. He is told that in the southern states, specifically, canines acquired the racial animus of their owners, as untrained dogs in “black sections” of the South apparently barked as white passersby, and vice versa.

The novel’s climactic moment unveils how White Dog was reconditioned by Keys, and Gary discovers a harrowing truth when Batka attacks him at the book’s conclusion. Keys, an unapologetic Black nationalist, was apparently reconditioning the animal toward the opposite extreme, in that he now only attacked white people without hesitation. As Gary approaches Keys’ home and is invited inside, Batka lunges angrily toward him, and he experienced bites that felt like “deep slashes from the knife,” (273). This attack was accomplished at Keys’ home, in front of his children. After Batka ceases his attack, Gary angrily shouts, “I see you succeeded, you dirty bastard. It’s Black Dog now…At least we are not the only ones to have discredited and debased ourselves,” to which Keys mockingly replies, “Yeah, we’ve learned a few things from you all right…Now we can even do the teaching,” (274-275). Defeated by the entire scenario, Gary still remains hopeful in his own personal interactions with people of African descent, but wonders if Black and white can ever fully reconcile in the United States.

Though based in the 1960s the lessons in White Dog hold relevance for historicizing the canine’s role in the advent of anti-black racism. In fact, the subject was so controversial that White Dog was refashioned as a motion picture in the 1980s, but only saw limited release after protests from Black civil rights groups claiming the film would have damaging repercussions for Black Americans in a tense racial climate. The German Shepherd, now the principal reflection of a “police dog,” symbolized the omnipresent violence of vigilantes and state-supported police forces. These dogs can inflict considerable psychological trauma against African Americans. In at least one case, officers placed them at the entry point of a court house to discourage a Black community from entering and showing solidarity with the accused. Regarding cases of police brutality, reports from Los Angeles, California and Ferguson, Missouri recently noted both canine forces predominantly attack Black and brown bodies.

The systemic use of dogs to intimidate, attack, subject, and brutalize Black people is well-documented in the historical record, and such knowledge is vividly recollected in Black oral traditions and American popular culture. Formerly enslaved abolitionists often used the imagery of dog attacks to expose the inhumanity of American slavery, and after the Civil War fierce dogs were used for chase scenes in stage plays and motion pictures based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In other words, consumers craved the thrill of dogs chasing, and nearly capturing, Black people in a rural landscape.

This trope was deployed throughout the twentieth century, demonstrating the intertwined histories of Black fugitives and attack dogs. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles displayed a lengthy interspecies conflict in his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song!, where the falsely-accused protagonist outruns, and eventually kills, a police dog chasing him through a desert landscape. References to racialized canine violence are found throughout popular culture, including episodes of King of the Hill, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Hell on Wheels, alongside the uncomfortably gory scene of the movie Django Unchained, which shows an enslaved man torn apart by dogs for refusing the enslaver’s orders. Such depictions use an interspecies lens to feed the American fetish for visualizing Black suffering in print, photography, and film. White Dog was neither the first nor last work to portray this history, but it provides a compelling metaphor in understanding how race and racism are intimately linked to humans’ interactions with animals.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.