Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Let’s Talk About Contemporary Slavery

Human trafficking is driven by America's unhealthy obsession with sex.

Slavery is at the forefront of American public discourse these days. Some focus their attention on public monuments—even to our nation’s founders—and whether or not such public art is somehow an endorsement of our country’s “original sin.” Some debate the degree to which slavery affects institutional racism in America’s criminal justice system, housing policies, and education disparities, among others. Still others argue over reparations for the descendants of black slaves.

Yet largely overlooked in this “national conversation” is another tragedy: slavery still exists in the United States, and it disproportionately affects black Americans.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that about 40.3 million people globally are estimated by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) to be enslaved today (that’s about 80 times the number of people who have thus far died from the coronavirus). It is also more than at any point in history. “A person today is considered enslaved,” explains a February 2019 article at The Guardian, “if they are forced to work against their will; are owned or controlled by an exploiter or ‘employer’; have limited freedom of movement; or are dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property.” Globally, more than half of current victims are in forced labor, while more than a third are living in forced marriages. Slavery, which is most prevalent in Africa and Asia, is big business, generating about $150 billion each year.

Slavery may seem a distant problem, but a 2018 U.S. Department of State report ranks the United States alongside Mexico and the Philippines as the three worst countries in the world for human trafficking, one form of slavery. The number of people in the United States who would be classified as enduring some manner of slavery are notoriously difficult to estimate, though some experts suspect it could be as high as the hundreds of thousands, if one includes child labor and forced sex work. An estimated 14,000-20,000 people are estimated to be trafficked into the United States every year. More than 300,000 young people in this country are considered “at risk” of sexual exploitation, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. Approximately 199,000 incidents of sexual exploitation occur within the U.S. each year.

The insatiable demand of the sex industry drives much of this. “We have a major issue here in the United States” said Geoff Rogers, co-founder of the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), in a June 2019 interview. “The United States is the No. 1 consumer of sex worldwide. So we are driving the demand as a society.” Many of the people trafficked in the sex industry are from outside the United States, particularly Mexico. But most are American. “If you are trafficked in the United States, 85 percent of victims that are trafficked here are from here,” said Brook Bello, founder of anti-trafficking organization More Too Life in Florida. “These are American kids, American born, 50% to 60% of them coming out of the foster care industry.”

Moreover, trafficking disproportionately affects black, latino, and Native Americans. According to one study, 40% of victims of human trafficking are African-Americans. African American children comprise 52% of all juvenile prostitution arrests. In Phoenix, Arizona, one of the top jurisdictions for trafficking in the United States, an estimated 40% of sex trafficking victims in 2015 were Native American. Also in 2015, half of the Homeland Security’s “most wanted” sex traffickers were from a single place in Mexico: Tenancingo,Tlaxcala.

Given these disparities, one might think there would be a groundswell of activist demand to address this human rights crisis. Yet there is no mention of human trafficking on Black Lives Matter’s mission statement, nor *anywhere* on their website, for that matter. A few voices have sought to associate BLM’s broader policy objectives with fighting trafficking, but these have so far been rare. “The way that law enforcement is addressing (human trafficking) right now is a microcosm of everything that the Black Lives Matter movement is talking about,” Vanessa Bouche, an Associate Professor at Texas Christian University told Reuters. Michelle Mason at John Jay College, has similarly urged using “the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement” to end “ the targeted sex trafficking of young black girls,” as well as reform the criminal justice system to not incarcerate and criminalize victims of this industry.

Some BLM objectives may actually aggravate trafficking and its effects on the black community. The Washington, D.C. chapter of BLM, for example, is calling for the decriminalization of sex work. “This will cause more harm and more exploitation of our most marginalized people,” Yasmin Vafa of Rights4Girls told the New York Times. “Girls have told us they heard about the bill for the first time from their pimps, who were excited about it. If pimps and sex buyers are on the same side of this legislative proposal, doesn’t that say something to the other supporters?”

Defunding the police, another frequent BLM demand, would have similar effects. “The specialist nature of investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases at the local level… would be affected by defunding policing agencies,” argues Dr. Roberto Potter, a sociologist teaching in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Central Florida. “Defunding is likely to have the impact of further reducing the availability of personnel to address human trafficking and similar activities.” More provocatively, Jaco Booyens, a vocal activist in the fight against child sex trafficking and fellow at Liberty University, recently argued at Newsweek that  “defunding the police would directly benefit pedophiles and sex traffickers who prey upon innocent Americans.”

None of this is intended as a distraction from legitimate, overdue demands to address institutional racism. Indeed, in some cases the two intersect. Some data, for example, indicates our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts African-Americans. Black people who are convicted of sex trafficking minors are on average sentenced for 39 months longer than white people, according to a database created by Bouche. Moreover, many of those arrested or convicted of participation in sex trafficking are treated as criminals rather than victims. Only eighteen states have adopted a human trafficking affirmative defense statute, which requires a court to determine if a survivor’s criminal act is a direct result of his or her trafficking.

Rather, this article urges a broader contemplation of the myriad inhumanities suffered by black Americans. Most human trafficking victims are underage, and a significant percentage are coming out of foster-care and other broken-home situations. This points to another crisis — the disintegration of black families, as the majority of black children grow up in broken homes (BLM, according to its website, aims to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement”). Yet another is abortion, which Dr. Carol Swain (of Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress fame) has labeled a modern genocide committed against the black community (BLM often collaborates with pro-choice activists).

Nor is this a case of “whataboutism” aimed at distracting from demands to address other racial injustices (indeed, as noted, other black Americans are urging BLM and other activists to care about this). Rather, it is aimed at addressing one of the most extreme manifestations of this inhumanity, the current enslavement of people (of whom a disproportionate number are black) in this country (and a topic TAC has consistently covered; see here, here and here).

So sure, let’s talk about slavery. Let’s talk about contemporary slavery vis-a-vis human trafficking in the United States. And let’s take aggressive action to combat it. Apart from the policy issues mentioned above, there are efforts to shut down Pornhub, the largest pornography website in the world, one which does not police itself, and is notorious for enabling and profiting off of the mass sex-trafficking and exploitation of women and minors. Trust me, taking that down will have a far better impact than attacking a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.