PETA wrong, but not racist
Steve Gilliard accuses People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of racism. The animal rights organization is running a publicity campaign called "Are Animals the New Slaves?" As part of the campaign, PETA is sponsoring an exhibition that includes photos of African American lynching victims. The campaign is attracting criticism from civil rights activists, including Dr. James Cameron, curator of America's Black Holocaust Museum. Dr. Cameron is quoted as saying:
"They may have treated us like animals back then, but there is no way we should be compared to animals today," he said. "You cannot compare the suffering of human beings or the suffering that I experienced to the suffering of an animal."
Dr. Cameron has a legitimate point. American racists have a long history of depicting blacks as animals. However, these depictions were designed to denigrate their subjects and diminish their moral status. PETA is trying to do exactly the opposite--they consider the suffering of slaves and lynching victims to be a moral travesty on the level of the Holocaust. The ads are pointing to the worst travesty we can imagine and saying "the exploitation of animals is like that." PETA has not handled itself well. You can read the correspondence between Dr. Cameron and a PETA spokesperson. PETA's defense of the campaign is insensitive and intellectually sloppy. However, I don't think there's anything racist about the campaign or PETA's defense of it. Steve writes:
It's the same kind of ignorant cruelty Cindy Sheehan is facing. Newkirk is simply incapable, like most fanatics, of seeing any side but her own. And she is blind to the outrage this will cause. She has no idea of how her response is not going to go over with black people. Even her explaination is as tone deaf as George Bush. That may go over well with her donors and allies when she makes a mistake, but it will fall on deaf ears with black people. I dare her to defend this on any black radio show, or even Air America.
Now, not only is PETA refusing to apologize, as they did with the Holocaust ad, they intend to continue the tour, well until they're denounced on Tom Joyner and from church pulpits. To compare black people to animals is the gravest insult a white person can do, and no matter how "liberal" PETA says it is, this will dog it until their tour is cancelled. Because she is fucking with something she does not understand in any way, shape or form. Angry isn't the word. I'd be surprised if Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren't outside PETA HQ at the end of the week.
So, given that this is the mentality of PETA's leadership, do you think it's fair to call them racist, now?
PETA's point of view also deserves consideration. If you believe, as they do, that animals have the same moral status as human beings, then it follows that our society's treatment of animals is directly analogous to slavery. We own them, we use them, we kill them for food and sport. Like most people, I reject PETA's initial premise. Most animals don't deserve nearly the same moral status as human beings. I agree that it's wrong to torture a chicken for sport or mutilate it to pad a profit margin, but I see nothing wrong with raising chickens humanely and killing them for the table. Steve's right that the ad and the response are short-sighted. It's callous to think that you can use racially charged images without opening wounds, even if you're using them to make a non-racist argument. Perhaps PETA is being racist for pulling the earlier Holocaust campaign but refusing to pull the Slavery campaign. If PETA cares less about the feelings of lynching survivors like Dr. Cameron than it does about those of Holocaust survivors, that's racist. However, it may be that PETA pulled the first ad because its opponents raised a bigger backlash. PETA deserves to be criticized for being insensitive, and inept, but not for being racist.Update: Julia suggests even more reasons to loathe PETA.