Part 2: Connections between Chattel Slavery and Modern-Day Human Trafficking

This Blog Post is Part 2 of a Series on the Connections between Chattel Slavery and Modern-Day Human Trafficking. 

Although the Justice for Chattel Slavery and Anti-trafficking movements have yet to work together on eradicating slavery and the historical imprint of slavery in our society, there is a stark connection between the two movements in the US. This blog post explores the connections between modern-day human trafficking and its partial roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also known as chattel slavery.

In 1865, chattel slavery of African Americans was outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” States thus turned to the prison system to enslave Black Americans for labor. Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, traces the exploitation of black men and women during the Reconstruction Era. The first wave of exploitation came through “convict-leasing.” Prison inmates, predominantly black individuals, were arrested and convicted of fabricated crimes such as “vagrancy,” and bought by private companies to perform hard labor in return for the company paying off inmates’ fines and fees. Convict-leasing was eventually outlawed in the 1930’s, conveniently replaced with chain-gangs. This time, prisoners were leased to work for the government, chained together to minimize the cost of monitoring prisoners and to maximize the labor they could perform. After the exposure of the horrendous conditions prisoners were enduring, including numerous deaths of inmates, chain gangs were outlawed in the 1950’s.

Convict-leasing and chain gangs, in conjunction with Jim Crow Laws and subsequent laws designed to disenfranchise black individuals, effectively crippled the black community. Currently, despite constituting only 12-13% of the US population, African Americans make up nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated populations. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born today can expect to end up in prison during his lifetime. Prison inmates are required to work and get paid between $0.12 and $0.40 per hour in federal prisons, and even less in state facilities, effectively slave labor wages. The legacy of slavery has found its way into our current system of justice, living on through the prison system.

Aside from the prison system, the legacy of slavery and subsequent marginalizing laws has effectively disenfranchised the black community, making risk factors for trafficking especially permissive in the black community. A number of studies, for example, cite poverty as a risk factor to trafficking, especially for sex trafficking. While both whites and blacks experience poverty in the US, a recent study found that due to a number of housing and zoning laws targeting poor black communities, black individuals tend to live in “concentrated poverty” in comparison to their white counterparts. Sociologists describe this form of poverty a “double burden,” effectively doubling the risk factors of trafficking. Poverty is just one example of a number of risk factors for trafficking that are amplified within the black community as a result of slavery and its legacy within the US.

Given the simultaneous emergence of student movements working to shed light and call for justice around the historic use and justification of chattel slavery on their college campuses and modern-day anti-trafficking student movements, we encourage student activists to work together. These movements are critically intertwined in the US.

Photo Credit: Reimagine

Samantha Thomas is the Research and Database Intern at Human Trafficking Search.