Does Border Patrol need to rein it in?

~ 6 minutes read

On Sunday, photos of Border Patrol agents on horseback interacting with Haitians at the border surfaced and were widely shared on the internet.

To the left, it’s cruel to treat innocent people as criminals for exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the US.  

  To some, the disparate treatment of Haitian refugees compared to white immigrants is proof that racism is a continued issue in the US.  

  To others, it’s important to make sure President Biden doesn’t evade blame for this, and we must actively try to understand the administration’s role and hold those responsible accountable.  


To the right, the Border Patrol is only doing their job by keeping these people from entering the country illegally and shouldn’t be blamed for it.  

  To others, the left’s outrage over a Border Patrol agent doing his duty while believing the death of an innocent woman — Ashli Babbit — is justified is nonsense and pure hypocrisy.  

Whips, reins, or reins being used as whips? Does it matter?

One photo in particular elicited lots of emotion, especially on the left, as some pointed out its resemblance to a famous drawing of two white slave patrollers on horseback, threatening a black man with a whip:



The parallels and symbolism in these photos impact how our brains think about what’s happening in them. People to the left drew parallels to the whipping of slaves, while people on the right began to question whether the leather line in the photo was a whip at all.



To the left, this is a distinction without a difference. If Border Patrol use their reins as whips, and it appears they do in videos of the encounter, they might as well be using whips.



To the right, this is another example of why the media cannot be trusted to get the story right. Journalists saw what fit into their narrative and reported on it uncritically.



Cowboys: A thing of the past or the present?

In a nation as large and diverse as ours, people have very different experiences of law enforcement (or everyday people) on horseback. To some, a man in a cowboy hat on horseback is normal and nothing out of the ordinary. To others, riding a horse to perform a job is antiquated, even regressive — something that shouldn’t happen anymore because we’ve progressed past it. If cowboys live in our head as an institution of the past, our brain is more likely to associate this photo with the past, making the connection to the times of slavery quicker. But if a man riding a horse in a cowboy hat is something we see more often in everyday life, we might be less likely to make the connection to slavery, making the visual much less jarring.



These photos clearly struck a chord with the public. But photos only capture a moment in time, and not the whole context, making them ambiguous as evidence for what really happened. To help us make sense of the limited evidence we have, we use the symbolism in these pictures to fill the gaps. Depending on our context and priors, the symbol’s meaning differs. But it’s important to remember that while the implications of a symbol may appear obvious to us, others may attribute a different, and equally valid, meaning to the same symbol. To understand others, it’s critical to understand the impact symbols have on how we interpret new information and recognize that our interpretation isn’t universal.


Notable amplifiers

Here is a tweet with video of the encounter:



And here is the first viral tweet about Border Patrol on horseback:



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Anna Tyger, Shaun Cammack, and Sofia Sedergren-Booker September 21, 2021