The thing that seems to mystify the mainstream media and much of the white public is that a significant number of Black people see the Michael Vick saga as a racial issue. What’s mystifying to Black people is the continued inability of the mainstream to recognize race in these sorts of cases.
The mainstream who have followed the case–dog lovers, dog-loving football fans and plain-old football fans disappointed by Vick for his criminal activity—wonder why Blacks persist in seeing pointy white hoods behind every action perpetrated against one of their community. But in a country whose history continues to be characterized by the unequal treatment before the law of an entire category of people—consider the injustice currently being perpetrated in the “Jena 6” case in Louisiana—how can the victims of that repression not see a connection? After all, it’s a dog. Michael Vick, however flawed, is a human being.
For Black people, the lingering image of the entire affair isn’t one of electrocuted, shot or “raped” pit bulls. It’s the image, endlessly broadcast on TV, of the overwhelmingly white crowd—mob, in fact—protesting outside the Falcons’ Atlanta training facility with chants and placards, one of which prominently reads: “Neuter Vick.”
Vick is a Black man, Georgia and Virginia, the sites of much of the protest, are in the South, and the tragic, real and recent history of the Black men in the South is that many, many of them ended up hanging from trees, savaged by jeering white mobs, men, women and even children who later posed for photographs beneath the mutilated and often “neutered” corpses.
This is fact: there were more than 4,700 lynchings between 1882 and 1959. That’s more than one a week for nearly 8 decades. In many of those cases, the lynched had originally been in police custody before being taken from jail cells (most often, with little or no resistance from their jailers); they were tortured, murdered, then strung up over town squares and on courthouse lawns.
As Sherilynn Ifill points out in her recent study of 20th-century lynchings in Maryland, On the Courthouse Lawn, the brutalized corpses were thus displayed as a message to the entire black community. More than extra-legal retribution on an individual, lynching was a pointed message to the larger Black population by the entire white community. And the entire white community was complicit, not just the lynchers but also the police who surrendered the victim from custody, the on-lookers who watched from a distance and those who ventured up close, even those who retired inside and shuddered their windows.
For all of them, observers as well as those who turned away their eyes, protected the murderers from being held accountable for their acts. Rare were the lynchers who were arrested for their involvement in a murder and few, if any, were found guilty by courts of their peers. (Not, in fact, until the very recent re-trials of Civil Rights-era terrorists, like Byron de la Beckwith, who was twice tried and let go after murdering Medgar Evers in 1964, and was only convicted 30 years later).
While rare today, the threat of lynching remains real, as evidenced by the 1998 murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. The potent symbol and indelible message of a century of lynching doesn’t simply go away, for black or white. White and Black Jena High students understood what the nooses hanging from the school oak tree meant and knew to whom the message was directed.
For many Black Americans, the legal system and its representatives have been and remain complicit in the unequal justice doled out on blacks. Anything that smites of a re-incarnation of Jim Crow injustice raises ire and provokes action. It’s not playing a “race card;” it’s a logical response to an oft-perpetuated, tangible threat.
Michael Vick committed a crime. He’s pled guilty for his actions and is facing jail-time. Beyond that, he’s lost his job and his endorsements; in fact, he’s likely to owe his former bosses as much as twenty million dollars, money recouped from his voided contract. The probability of Vick finding work in football after his release from prison is iffy at best, as one must imagine his skills will have diminished after a year (minimally) of hard time. Given his shattered reputation and the NFL monopoly on professional football, job opportunities in the only work for which he has been trained will likely be few.
Will Virginia Tech, for whom Vick made millions (with Vick’s only recompense having been a scholarship that he made little use of, having left college after his sophomore season) hire him as an assistant coach? It’s unlikely. Uneducated, with few skills and his reputation in ruins, Vick has a meager future, the crown prince become court jester and ex-con. Isn’t that punishment enough?
To continue to attack Vick, to push for or support more indictments (recently announced by the Commonwealth of Virginia) and a further besmirching of his name, can only be considered piling on.
Because they were dogs, after all. In antebellum America, enslaved Black people were property, listed on tax rolls and inventories alongside plows, settees and the family dairy cow. Where white Americans tend to want to disregard this fact as inconvenient ancient history, Blacks, in general, refuse to—indeed, cannot—forget.
Our societal amnesia is our crime, as wrong as Vick’s illegal activities. The killed dogs are Vick’s victims, not the offended dog owners nationwide who imagine their Fido or Bow-wow or Spot cattle-prodded by the beastly Black football star. Perhaps those who are so outraged by the facts of Vick’s crimes should question this society, one in which they hold in greater regard family pets over actual humans, people with families, people who hope for better lives.
The U.S. currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In an August 27 article in The Nation, Daniel Lazare cites the relevant statistics: 2.2 million imprisoned, nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners (though the US comprises only 5 percent of the world’s population), among whom a disproportionate number are African Americans. One of every eight Black men 25-29 years old—Vick’s age—is in the penitentiary, the majority for offenses that involved no violence against humans. Wouldn’t our energies, as a society, be better spent trying to rehabilitate those imprisoned young men so that they can become—or, as in the case of Vick, return to being—productive members of their families and of society?
David Wright is the author of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Kenyon Review, New York Newsday, Paste Magazine, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Illinois.