by Ally Romero
Chapter Two of Race in America (Desmond & Emirbayer, 2015) titled ‘The Invention of Race’ explores how the concept of race has emerged throughout history. The chapter discusses the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and explains that Africans were brought to America by these voyages. The trips could take anywhere from 2-3 months, sometimes much longer depending on the weather conditions. People were packed onto overcrowded ships and had very little room to move. This quote of a firsthand experience illustrates the miserable conditions, “If anyone wanted to sleep, they lay on top of each other. To satisfy their natural needs, they had bilge places over the edge of the sea but, as many feared to lose their place, they relieved themselves where they were, above all the men cruelly pushed together, in such a way that their heat and the smell became intolerable.” Death on these voyages were very common. Causes of death ranged from malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, murder, and suicide. If anyone rebelled against this horrible treatment, they were injured and their wounds were rubbed with salt, ashes, and pepper. Some historians estimate that between 10-15 million slaves were brought to America from the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, this figure doesn’t include those who died on the ships which has been reported to be about 15%-30% of slaves. Modern slavery is quite different. In the past, the way a slave was brought to their destination was horrible, and they were subjected to those horrible conditions right away. For some people in today’s world, the way victims are brought to their destinations are through methods of deceit. I read an article posted on BBC News by Shandra Woworuntu which provided such an eye-opening, touching, and personal account of what it’s like to be a victim of sex-trafficking. Shandra had graduated college with a degree in finance and worked in Indonesia as an analyst and trader. However, once Indonesia was hit by a financial crisis, she lost her job. She began to look for work overseas and eventually settled on working in the hospitality business, for a hotel in the United States. She said the process involved a lot of paperwork and interviews and cost about $2,700. Looking back, Shandra is a bit critical of herself and said she was so naïve because the hotel was supposed to be in Chicago, but her flight arrived at JFK airport in New York. Once she arrived in New York with a few other girls from Indonesia, they were driven short distances before being told to get in a different car. Each exchange involved a payment to the driver, and sometimes the new drivers had guns. This exchange happened over and over again. Before long she realized what was happening and just a few hours after arriving in the U.S., she was raped. This article provides a window into the deplorable situations sex-trafficking victims are forced into, and also helps us to understand the process of how this category of modern slavery begins. In the past, black slaves were regulated under the slave codes. They were not allowed to carry weapons, trade goods, own land, socialize with free blacks, get married, testify in court against a white person, and much more. Since marriages were not recognized, slave families were also not recognized in the eyes of the law. This meant that they were scattered and separated from one another. The children that were born from a free white man and an enslaved black woman were to “bear the condition of the mother”. This coincides with the “one-drop rule” that meant a person would be considered black if they had even a small amount of African blood. Slaves were not allowed to get an education, and some were stripped of their entire identity. They were not allowed to speak in their native languages, they were to dress according to the style their captor preferred, some were given new names, and were given marks of servitude in the form of a tattoo, brand, or a cropping of their ears. A couple of these restrictions coincide with Shandra’s article. She wrote about how towards the beginning of the time she was taken, she was taken on a shopping outing and was told it was to get a uniform for her position at the hotel. Once she arrived at the shop, she looked around and saw that it was all lingerie clothing, very skimpy, and not at all what she thought someone in professional hotel hospitality would wear. After time had passed Shandra detailed her escape from her traffickers and how she went about informing the authorities of their business. After the traffickers had been caught and were put on trial, people asked Shandra if she wanted to pick a new name for herself, for her protection. Shandra ultimately decided that she wanted to keep her name. She felt like her traffickers had robbed her of so much already, she didn’t want her identity to be another thing to add to the list. There are stark differences in the slave codes and the rules Shandra had to follow, however, they both embody a set of restrictions that depict the way owners/traffickers control their victims. It’s important to realize that slavery didn’t end– rather it altered its form to perpetuate in our world, harming people every single day. Today, we might not see people who own other people, although that still exists too, but we do see a lot of people who are controlled by other people. The International Labour Organization estimated that over 40 million people were held in modern slavery on any given day as of 2016. Of those, an estimated 4.8 million women and children were trafficked in the commercial sex trade. Although time has passed and the setting is no longer a plantation, the elements of slavery are still present. People are trafficked through coercion or deceit, they are controlled by treats of violence, they are dehumanized and treated as property, and their freedom is utterly restricted. Typically, modern slavery affects people and groups that are vulnerable. This could mean someone who is living below the poverty line and has not been educated about the different ways to stay vigilant. Others might be very intelligent, but they are not familiar with a foreign culture and fall victim to a trap. This person, like Shandra, might be desperate for a job opportunity and find themselves trapped in a role that is completely different than they were anticipating. What most people find disturbing is that modern slavery is not a problem that is far away in the distance in developing countries. This is a human rights violation that is happening in our society. The Urban Institute examined what’s called the ‘underground sex economy’. This includes sex trafficking that is happening in eight U.S. cities. To give an idea, the underground commercial sex economy for Denver, Colorado is estimated at $39.9 million. The economy for Atlanta, Georgia is roughly $290 million. This study examined the way the sex trafficking business generates multi-million dollar profits and even made note of the fact that the pimps and traffickers interviewed for the study took home $5,000 – $32,833 a week. Combatting this issue is no small task, however there are steps that can be taken. There are organizations that are taking the initiative and fighting so that everyone can have a voice and enjoy freedom. The Walk Free Foundation based in Australia has accomplished milestones such as publishing editions of the Global Slavery Index, which is the most accurate country-by-country ranking of the number of people in modern slavery. They have also provided guidelines for government and businesses across all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to make legislative changes that create safe pathways for migrant laborers to travel. The UK has also passed the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 that works to combat modern slavery and focuses on issues like prostitution and human trafficking. James Brokenshire, who introduced the Act, said the act would “send the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up.” It’s reassuring to know that this problem is not going ignored and that people are stepping up to create change. Looking at this problem through a legal lens I believe that awareness needs to increase so that legislation condemning these practices can be passed. I look forward to doing more research on this topic and exploring the various ways I can use my legal education to help in this fight.