The above juxtaposition of the lynching of Black men and the slaughter of a bull, from a PETA exhibit in 2005, offends many Black people and anti-racist activists who object to the juxtaposition as dehumanizing and representative of White supremacy. Many of those (mostly White) nonhuman animal advocates who defend the comparison counter that those who object to the exhibit are just being "speciesist."
I agree with those who object to the comparison because it follows a pattern of dehumanization that is rooted in White supremacy and supported by racism. Concurrent with the PETA exhibit, the zoo in Augsburg, Germany announced plans to open a "African Village" exhibit. Norbert Finzsch, a German scholar of African American History, announced:
I would like to direct your attention to something that is going on in Germany which, in my opinion, requires the consideration of the international scholarly community. It is with utmost indignation that the African German community has taken notice of the plans to open an "African Village" within the zoo of Augsburg, Germany. The opening of this exhibit is scheduled for July 9 - July 12. 2005. "Artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers are situated in an unique African steppe landscape" according to the leaflets handed out by the organizers of the show. The conveners obviously are oblivious of the fact that exhibits like the one planned in Augsburg are organized within the German tradition of racist "ethnographic shows" (Völkerschauen). A letter of reply by Ms. Barbara Jantschke, PhD, from the Augsburg Zoo, directed to an African Swiss citizen underlines the intention, to put Africans on display in the zoo within "an atmosphere of exotism".
It is obvious that the conveners do not understand the historical implications of their project. Even in Germany the impact of colonialism and racism on African societies are nowadays debated in public. The way Africans and African Americans in Germany are perceived and discussed, the way they are present on billboards and in TV ads prove that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive in Germany. This is the direct result of forty years of German colonialism and twelve years of National Socialism. People of color are still seen as exotic objects (of desire), as basically dehumanized entities within the realm of animals. This also explains why a zoo has been selected as site for the exhibit. It is necessary to remind the organizers that in the history of "ethnographic shows" African and German African individuals were used as object for anthropometric tests and ethnological investigations of highly questionable scientific benefit.
I think Finzsch statement that the "conveners do not understand the historical implications of their project" applies to the PETA exhibit as well as the exhibit at the Augsburg Zoo. An example of this is the following ad produced by PETA in Germany just a few years before the PETA and Augsburg Zoo exhibits:
The historical implications of this image of a Black man as a "wild" nonhuman animal is problematic, and illustrative of how "Africans and African Americans ... are perceived and discussed, the way they are present on billboards and in TV ads prove that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive".
While superficially promoting an anti-zoo message with the text: "Wild animals do not belong behind bars," the image actually reinforces racist controlling images of Black men as dangerous, inhuman, sexual predators, and, as Finzsch pointed out, as exotic objects of desire. In his book, Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel explains this intertwining of fear and danger with sexuality:
Because of the merging of sex and violence with racism in our society, images of people of color, which are seen as dangerous, are also seen as erotic. Because of prohibitions about sexual expression, erotic projections onto people of color makes them seem more dangerous. This added danger then makes them seem more erotic.
Later, PETA released the same image in the United States as part of its anti-fur campaign with the text: "Fur Bites." The image is no less racist in the US than it is in Germany. The intertwining of the sexual with fear and danger has historical implications for people of color, particularly Black men.
Controlling images of Black men as rapists was the dominate justification of lynchings. Black men are disproportionately portrayed as sexually dangerous in the news and entertainment media. And while lynchings are now less common, Black men still face institutional violence justified by these same controlling images. That is, Black men are disproportionately subjected to systematic imprisonment (caging) and other controls by the US criminal punishment system because of the view that they are sexually dangerous.
Thus, there is a direct historical connection between PETA's use of an exotic/erotic and dehumanized image of a Black man aggressively lunging from inside a cage (prison) and its use of the image of Black men being lynched. The very images that PETA creates in its portrayal of a Black man as a "wild" nonhuman animals are synonymous with those controlling images used to justify lynching and imprisoning Black men.