With striking historical detail, Dangerous Crossings, puts into conversation the processes involved in the making of race and its entanglement with species and nature in the United States. The book draws on historical data, qualitative interviews, as well as policy and media analysis to provide the reader with a historical foundation from which to understand the co-implicated logics of white supremacy and speciesism foundational to institutions and projects of nation-making in the United States (slavery, settler colonialism, Chinese immigration) which continue to influence contemporary power relations. After making clear the historically rooted and co-constituted taxonomies of species and race, Kim moves to an analysis of contemporary debates surrounding the treatment of animals by minority groups. Kim attends to various logics of argumentation made by white animal activists (cruelty and harm) and by racialized groups (racism and cultural imperialism) to argue for a politics of mutual avowal. For these reasons, this book makes a valuable contribution to both critical animal studies and critical race studies, and is important reading for activists working at the nexus of social justice movements seeking to contribute to anti-oppression efforts for humans and animals.
Dangerous Crossings is divided into four parts. Part I. “Taxonomies of Power” traces the specific animalizations of black persons, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants in projects seeking to both hierarchically order and design the “races of man.” Part II. “The Battle over Live Animal Markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown” reads this dispute through the optics of cruelty to animals, racism, and ecological harm mobilized by various stakeholders. Part II culminates in a discussion of how single-issue framing narrows our attention to one axes of harm or marginalization, which not only prevents attention to other claims of injustice, but actively negates competing claims made by others. Instead, Kim argues for a multi-optic vision that allows us to recognize and mutually avow multiple axes of oppression—an approach that holds more possibility for cross-cultural recognition and for working against forms of oppression simultaneously. Part III, “Other Disputes,” analyses the debates surrounding the decision of the Makah to resume whaling after a seventy-year hiatus, and the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal. Finally, Part IV, “We Are All Animals/We Are Not Animals,” takes up the politics of the category human as a taxonomy of power. For Kim, the category of the human is a taxonomy of power that draws lines of exclusion to mark which humans get to count as human, those who are animalized and dehumanized, as well as the nonhuman animals subject to violence within this taxonomy. Yet, Kim does not argue for the inclusion of excluded others into the realm of the human. Instead, she writes that:
The project before us is not an extensionist one (expanding the definition of the human to allow a few racialized groups or preferred ape species in) but rather a reconstructive one (reimagining humans, animals, and nature outside of systems of domination). In ecological terms, time is indeed short. But there is still a chance to open ourselves to each other, to see each other. There is still time to become and act together (Kim, p 287).
In fact, Dangerous Crossings irrefutably shows that concerns about animals, race, and nature are co-implicated and cannot be addressed through the flattening of difference between groups or species, nor via the denial of other’s experiences of oppression in an effort to privilege a specific cause.
Taxonomies of power
By focusing on the notion of borderlands—the idea that various groups of humans exist in the space between “the human” and animals—Kim provides a detailed analysis of how racialized groups were particularly animalized, as well as the hierarchies within these groups and the disparate values placed on different animals. In particular, black persons have been likened to apes, Native Americans have been constructed as more similar to wolves than they were to European men, and Chinese immigrants have been portrayed as pestilential, as living like domesticated pigs (i.e., dirty), and as lecherous like snakes. These comparisons to particular animals were deployed at times and in ways that were politically useful and necessary to the project of nation-making in the US.
For example, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, “the Negro” was depicted as much closer to apes than to (white) humans, with scientific research seeking to place them as the “missing link between man and ape” (p 43). The institution of slavery relied on particular constructions of black persons as inferior to whites. However, how whites described the inferiority of black persons to justify slavery took many forms depending on the context. They were simultaneously and variously described as a beast to be domesticated for man’s instrumental purposes, or as “a child in a particular relationship with his master” (p 38). Because the Great Chain of Being portrayed human and animal differences as degrees of difference, Kim suggests that:
The ape comparison was more than just a forceful metaphor meant to denigrate or express difference; it was an indicator of whites’ uncertainty and ambivalence about how to think about the Negro and their imaginative placement of him in the human/animal borderlands where he was variously seen as subhuman, not quite human, almost animal, actually animal (p 35).
For Kim, it was their low status in the ‘races of man’ that linked “the Negro” to an animality that could not be transcended. For “the Indian” it was his “savagery” that hitched him to notions of untamed animality.
Native Americans were constructed by British colonizers as more like wolves than to white Europeans, who were taken to be the baseline from which an assessment of the humanity of another could be determined. Because they lived without relationships of private property to land or to animals, Native Americans were seen as lacking in civilization, and were therefore more like the wolves they shared the forest with. This likening of Native Americans to wolves allowed colonists to expropriate land, while at the same time claiming that Europeans would teach them ‘civilized’ modes of existence. Because Native Americans did not partake in animal agriculture, nor claim individual property rights to land, colonists claimed that they developed a legitimate title to land via its ‘improvement’ (e.g., animal agriculture, enclosures, and erecting an abode). Yet, colonists did not depict native persons as wolves merely for material gain, but that these conclusions ‘made sense’ given the epistemological frameworks of the time (17th, 18th, and 19th centuries): “they knew Indians were men but they thought them animal-like men…they imagined them into the human-animal borderlands in ways that decisively shaped white-Indian relations into the twenty-first century” (p 44). The human-animal divide was thought of in terms of a continuum, with white European men (and the norms associated with them) as typical of the human, and the animal at the bottom of the hierarchy; non-white populations were measured and placed along this continuum.
During the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants posed a practical problem for white working-class men: their larger numbers in places like San Francisco meant that they were competing for jobs white men considered their exclusive domain. The human-animal dualism, supported by the denigrated status of animals, was mobilized by white Californians to deny full personhood to Chinese immigrants. They were depicted as “a degenerate race encroaching on and invading white spaces, posing a moral, medical, and economic threat to the nation. Menacing, swarming, pestilential animal images became stitched indelibly into the body of the Chinese” in which the response was to permanently expel these ‘pests’ (p 53). This population was constructed as regressive, immune to progress and to modernity. Chinese immigrants were likened to vermin or domesticated farmed animals, with newspapers and government reports describing their crowded living conditions as akin to pig pens, cow stalls, or rat dens. An 1885 municipal report on San Francisco’s Chinatown, for example, described the “mode of life among the Chinese here…as not much above ‘those of the rats on the waterfront’” (cited in Kim, p 55). This particular animalization of the Chinese revolved around notions of vermin and farmed animals as filthy carriers of disease who threatened to contaminate white humans and posed a threat to western values.
Just as racist notions of black persons as being the missing link between between man and ape emerged in a context of slavery and dominant ideas about Native Americans as wolves emerged in a context of colonization, Chinese immigrants were likened to animals concurrent with their perceived threat to whites’ access to employment. This brief overview provides a small sample of the detailed historical analysis that Kim elucidates in this work. In so doing, Dangerous Crossings reveals the enduring legacies underpinning contemporary realities of how race, species, and nature play out in contemporary US inter-species and inter-cultural relations.
Contemporary disputes and implications for advocacy
In Parts II and III, Kim considers more contemporary examples of controversies concerning the treatment of animals by minority groups. As she shows, these controversies continue to rely on a single-optics politics of disavowal. For example, in the live markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown, animal rights groups failed to acknowledge ongoing racism in the US, instead employing a post-racial discourse in their charges of animal cruelty. Responses from some in the Chinese community, who were interested in countering these charges of cruelty, did so by arguing that this was a racist attack. Charges of ecological harm were also mobilized by animal advocates when it was clear that an argument framed by charges of cruelty would not mobilize the political changes they desired. Kim makes an important and astute observation when she writes that their frame of ecological harm advances a neoliberal understanding of nature. In this way, ecological harm was framed by the terms set out by the state wherein ecological conservation is a means to protect “natural resources” (aka animals used for human ends). In this way, concern for animals as individuals is negated in lieu of a shared concern about maintaining certain animal populations. By mobilizing concern on the basis of ecological harm, the use-value of animals as instruments for human ends is reinforced.
Kim also analyzes disputes about the Makah’s decision to resume whaling after a multi-decade hiatus. Animal advocates seeking to prevent this practice relied on arguments premised on the ecological and ethical harms this would entail. They stated that grey whales deserved protection because their existence was precarious, because this would provide precedent for whale hunting in other locations, and because whales have an inherent interest in life, as do other sentient beings. Members of the Makah Indian nation who wanted to hunt whales (there was also opposition within the community) claimed that it was fundamental to their culture, and that they were once again the target of cultural imperialism. Fundamentally, neither group truly considered the claims made by the other. Kim argues that a politics of truly considering the validity of another group’s claims would provide the conditions to recognize and attend to each other’s needs. In this scenario, Kim argues that animal advocates would:
Take seriously the Makah’s ontology and tribal justice claims… the Makah, for their part, can move toward opening themselves to animal and environmental protectionist claims, building upon the example of some other Native American tribes and Canadian First Nations (Kim p 252).
As such, Dangerous Crossings contains analytical and practical implications for those trying to navigate the fraught and tense terrain of animal activism in anglo-settler realities.
The final case analysed in the book is the conviction and surrounding public discourse of Micheal Vick for dog fighting. Those seeking harsh sentences for Vick relied on claims of cruelty towards animals, while those sympathetic to Vick charged those condemning him of racism. Specifically, they suggested that as a successful black athlete Vick was being made an example of, being brought “back down” as he had exceeded his “rightful place” within a white supremacist hierarchy. Public opinion and media depictions were often underpinned by Vick being put in the place of dogs, or dogs (who have historically been used by slave owners to control slaves, and who are currently used as police dogs) torturing Vick as he did pit-bulls (who are also presently racialized as black because of their proximity to black men and urban culture). In the end, Kim traces the ways in which both groups rejected each other’s claims. Because of the synergistic relationship between race and species, Kim concludes by suggesting that in this case, a politics of mutual recognition is necessary. This ethics would in some capacity be premised “on the understanding that the taxonomies of race and species crucially energize and sustain one another” (p 279).
Based on the mutually constitutive aspects of race, species, and nature in projects of US nation-making, Kim makes clear that animal advocacy framed by post-race discourses (which annex structural racism and settler colonialism) will fail to account for ongoing systems of oppression that target minority groups. For Kim, a single-issue approach is “a posture of mutual disavowal, where each group elevates its own suffering and justice claims over the suffering and justice claims of the other group, either partly or wholly invalidating the latter as as matter of political and moral concern” (p 181). For Kim, the implications of dismissing another’s claim of oppression should trouble us. If a tenet of a group’s claim is that domination is unjust, and that anti-oppression is political goal, then one’s implication in, or position relative to other groups, should be grappled with. This leads Kim to ask, “if single-optic vision leads to mutual disavowal, where does multi-optic vision lead?” (p 182). To which Kim will respond, that attending to multiple and simultaneous injustices encourages an openness to the experiences of other subordinated groups which could lead to mutual affirmation. Importantly though, this does not mean that we have to uncritically embrace the practices of others, especially if these practices enable other forms of oppression. This leads Kim to argue that critique of a specific tradition can be levied while simultaneously recognizing the validity of a group’s overall claim to justice.
In sum by theorizing race and species as synergistic taxonomies of power Dangerous Crossings makes crucial interventions into critical race studies and critical animal studies. By articulating a politics of advocacy based on mutual recognition, this book also has practical implications for animal activists seeking to mindfully critique the treatment of nonhuman animals predicated on tradition.