Slavery is not a thing of America’s past

OlympianNovember 13, 2013 

The movie “12 Years a Slave” is receiving rapturous reviews for depicting the antebellum South less as a gauzy land of elegant plantations than as the raw backdrop of monstrous brutality.

It’s terrific that, in the 21st century, we can squarely face 19th-century slavery. But let’s also acknowledge the modern versions of slavery in the world around us — and, yes, right here at home.

The United States is home to about 60,000 people who can fairly be called modern versions of slaves, according to a new Global Slavery Index released last month by the Walk Free Foundation, which fights human trafficking. These modern slaves aren’t sold in chains in public auctions, so it’s not exactly the same as 19th-century slavery.

Those counted today include illegal immigrants forced to work without pay under threat of violence and teenage girls coerced to sell sex and hand all the money to their pimps.

There are, of course, many more ambiguities today than in the 1850s about how to count slaves, but the slavery index finds almost 30 million people enduring modern slavery. More are in India than in any other country, and in some countries, such as Mauritania, children are still born into slavery.

Who are these modern American slaves?

One survivor I met last month in New Orleans, Clemmie Greenlee, had her life taken over by a pimp at age 12. She said she spent years having sex with up to 50 men a day. On average, she was beaten 10 times a month, for not meeting her daily quota or other offenses.

Why didn’t she run away? Because, she says, of a mix of fear, Stockholm syndrome, emotional manipulation by pimps, hopelessness fueled by drug addiction and distrust of the authorities.

Eventually, Greenlee was able to escape that life, and she now runs a residential program called Eden House to help other women start over. An African-American, she says that what trafficked women endure is absolutely an echo of what her ancestors endured on plantations.

Slavery isn’t as formal or as widespread in the United States today as it was in the 1850s, of course, but it’s still easy to find. Go to backpage.com, the leading website for prostitution advertising, and search for your hometown. Some of the women selling sex there are adults voluntarily in the business, but many are women or girls under the control of pimps who take every penny they earn, brand them with tattoos and beat them if they don’t earn enough.

Yet, in the United States, we typically arrest the victims rather than the pimps or the johns. Rectifying that would be a step toward modern emancipation.

The slavery index is the work of Andrew Forrest, an Australian billionaire who was awakened to the issue after his 15-year-old daughter, Grace, worked in an orphanage in Nepal. Grace later revisited the orphanage with her parents to check in on old friends — who were no longer there. They had, it turned out, been sold to brothels abroad.

After returning to Australia, Forrest ordered a review of his mining company’s supply chains to make sure that there was no forced labor. He promptly found that some overseas laborers had had their passports confiscated and had gone unpaid for years.

Maybe we can find inspiration today not just from “12 Years a Slave” but also from the anti-slavery movement that began in Britain in the 1780s. It was one of the first great human rights campaigns in the world.

People then simply accepted slavery. The Bible encouraged slaves to be obedient, the Church of England owned a major slave plantation in Barbados and Thomas Jefferson advocated powerfully for human freedom except where slaves were involved.

That British abolitionist movement, pioneered by Quakers and led by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, with help from a former slave named Olaudah Equiano, caught fire and changed the world. Some 390,000 people, more people than were then eligible to vote in Britain, signed petitions against slavery. Hundreds of thousands of people boycotted sugar made with slave labor. It’s a story movingly told by Adam Hochschild in his superb book “Bury the Chains.”

The abolitionists succeeded in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but their work is not finished. I fear that a century from now, someone may put together a movie about slavery in 2013, leading our descendants to shake their heads and ask of us: What were they thinking?

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, may be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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