Slavery, a very emotional subject for Americans and a long range solution

Let’s take a chance and talk about slavery.  This is a very delicate subject in America.  But the discussion has to begin.  

America is leading in attacks on trafficking.  Frankly a huge proportion of Americans will tell you that trafficking has something to do with prostitution and, of course, they also know that is very bad.  But the fact is – THE FACT IS – that the vast majority of trafficking is about labor and not sex work.  Even sex work is about labor.  That’s why it is called sex work!  In fact it is often seen by academics and people outside of America as only being about labor.

I will say over and over on post in this blog that there are three strong exaggerated and sensationalized stories used by the anti-trafficking industry to get your attention and your donations those are:     Children, violence against women, and slavery.

So, lets talk about slavery.

 At one time I worked in an office where most of my co-workers were Black Americans and my immediate boss was a middle age Black woman.  Once the subject of slavery came up  – I don’t remember how or why –  I causally said the wrong thing.  Maybe I said that slavery was a long time ago or something like that which seemed benign to me.   I discovered I wasn’t on the proper emotional bandwagon.  My boss made sure I knew she loved her grandmother who was one of the last of the slaves, as if I disparaged her relative.  There was a coolness between us for quite awhile even though I had no idea what I said that was wrong.  Like religion, slavery at least in America is a subject rarely open to safe discussion.

This kind of emotional understanding about slavery 170 or so years after the official end of slavery in America is one reason why American culture and attitudes affect the international understanding of trafficking.

All over the world, including places where slavery was as active or more so then it was in America, people simply do not have that same emotional connection to all the power words and hyperbole that bring such powerful reactions to Americans.

I recently read about slavery in Brazil.  In the current Presidential election a black woman with former slave relatives is a serious contender to be President – and it is no big deal there.  There has never been as emotional an understanding about slavery in Brazil as there is in America.  The article said that, not me.  And that is true even though five times as many slaves were shipped to Brazil as American and slavery remained legal in Brazil for two decades after it ended in America.  Note: America ended slavey many years after Britain, France, Belgium and other colonial powers.  Americans often think America is progress, a leader, but not in this case.  With America as an example you would think slavery is an emotional issue in Brazil, but it is not.  Yet it is very emotional for Americans.

Slavery is an emotional idea“Yaa, so what”, some people might be ready to say.  Well here is “so what!”  America leads the war on trafficking.  It is their war declared by George W. Bush.  As always the American people need to support it – emotionally in this case.  And they do.  One reason is that, given every opportunity, the issue of trafficking is linked to slavery.  It is called Modern Day Slavery (yes, in capital letters) because it really isn’t slavery as Americans have been taught to understand it, but the emotional impact is still there.

Virtually all labor trafficking is associated with “slave like conditions” at every opportunity.  For example,  garment workers – all slaves.  The only exceptions might be when Nike and Walmart need low prices for the American market.

Of course sex workers are always portrayed as slaves, in slave like conditions.  This is at the root of many exaggerations and out right lies about sex work.  Brothels are sometimes described as having barbed wire and armed guards to keep sex workers from escaping, but in the real world this defines common sense.  The link is to slavery.  Sex workers must be portrayed as being treated like helpless slaves in order to tug at American heart strings and at their wallets too.


An odd side bar is that I have met several sex workers who left the garment factories for the better opportunity offered by sex work.  Yet is use of sewing machines that are often mentioned as alternatives NGOs can offer sex workers they “rescue” so they can do different work.  The same is true of factory jobs making jewelry.  I have met several sex workers who are taking that path too leaving those factories for the better opportunity as a sex worker.   No one wants to hear that but it is my antidotal experience.


I have been reading a rare book, not easy to find:  Slavery, Bondage & Dependency in Southeast Asia, Anthony Reid, University of Queenland Press, 1983.   That book explains that western people were shocked about slavery when they visited Asia in the 1700, and early 1800s.  Slavery was mild.  It didn’t rise to an emotional understanding.  All slavery around the world wasn’t the brutal, American emotional, Django-style slavery.  Most Asian slavery would never have qualified for an exciting Hollywood movie treatment.  And that is a reason other countries do not always understand American issues about slavery outside of America.

One long range solution to trafficking as I see it

This blog constantly tells you that the real story of trafficking is that of population increases and loss of unskilled jobs for the poorest people.  If so what can we do about it.

Various kinds of communal farm situations have been tried in the past, most notably with low success by Communist governments.

As people continue to out number jobs by even bigger margins – current population is 7.3 billion but in only six years it should reach 8 billion – what will we do?  And 9 billion by 2050, per UN estimates.

Maybe communal farming and other communal work situations will become popular again.  The US federal government is experimenting with job sharing projects, working from home and sharing a single desk with several people in the office.  Technology is taking over more low skilled jobs every year but some of that could be outlawed so people will work in labor jobs where jobs have already been lost to technology.  One thing we are very likely to do is combine some of these new ideas like sharing jobs and giving communal farm labor another chance.   There is a huge potential for many work opportunities in a future over populated world which may look like slavery to those who hang onto an emotion connection with that word.

Laws being created now to end slavery for humanitarian reasons could very easily force people called victims of slavery into starvation instead.  I might be a little snide when I say this but many Americans will be quick to agree that individual hunger or hunger for entire families is better than slavery or prostitution.   Those are the people with a good meal under their nose several times a day.   I think the opposite.  But Americans might think that way and support policy that has that result as long as Americans eat well.  But a time of reckoning will come.

What do you think?  Do you really know slavery or do you have an emotional reaction to the word itself?

1 Comment

  1. Well here we go! Lets get myself into some trouble here.

    The BBC series, “Who Do You Think You Are” covers the ancestry of Celebrity Chef Ainsley Harriet, whose parentage is from the Caribbean. At one stage, the implication is made that one of his female ancestors might have been a former slave. This reduces Harriet to tears. Especially when the suggestion is made that she might have been used for “breeding” other slaves.

    As they investigate, they find out that she was not a slave. Within minutes, he discovers that another ancestor was a cop who also ran brothels. Bearing in mind his reaction about the female relative, I was expecting him to be embarrassed to discover this. No way. AH is proud to describe the cop as “an entrepreneur”.

    Make no mistake about it. The Slave trade was evil, but for all that, I still cringe at Tony Blair apologising for Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. And why is this? Because if you start to think about the logistics of slavery, you realise that it was not white men charging ashore and rounding them up like Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide”. These slaves were bought from other black men who had already enslaved them. And before anyone thinks I am saying that it was OK,if all you were doing was buying slaves, that is not the case at all. What I am saying is that long before the white man put in an appearance, black men were enslaving other black men. Had this not been the case, there never would have been a slave trade.

    But for all the evils of the slave trade, there is a wicked irony that the most successful black men in the world, are not in Africa, but are in fact in the US and are the descendants of slaves. Personally, I think Black people are just a bit too ready to blame the white man, and I have never heard (so far) anybody blame the black man who sold his brethren into slavery to begin with.

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