Modern Slavery

US abolished slavery: myth or reality?

From 1650 to 1950, the African population living on the African continent increased from 100 million to 222 million people--that is to say, the African population increased by 122 million people. The next 50 year period, from 1950 to 2000, Africa’s population rose by 589 million and reached 811 million people[1]. The impact of these numbers become clearer when we notice that in 1650, Africa’s population comprised an estimated 18% of the world population, but by 1900 their share of the world population had decreased to seven percent[2]. These figures show that, for nearly 3 centuries, African population growth had nearly come to a halt[3]. The main reason for this was clearly the slave trade that was being performed in large part by Europeans and Americans.

“During the five centuries of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, the population and migratory practices of Atlantic sharks changed dramatically. There were disproportionately more sharks and they followed the hundreds of slave ships crisscrossing the Atlantic and the Caribbean. This has resulted in today's Atlantic shark being quantitatively and qualitatively different from the Pacific shark: they have acquired more of a "taste" for human flesh that their Pacific kin!” -S.E. Anderson[4]

The numbers don’t lie. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was meant to abolish slavery in 1864, did not. The above numbers show that chattel slavery was widespread long into the 20th century, and, with some adjustments, it continues to exist as this article is being written.

Chattel slavery should not be seen as an act that was being practiced by the people apart from the laws set by the governments of the US and Europe. Actually, American and European laws enforced slavery and lawmakers were determined to keep in place such an inhumane system; citizens were prohibited from acting otherwise.

The set of laws known as slave codes specified:

"Owners refusing to abide by the slave code were fined and forfeited their slaves.”[5]

The slave code refers to any of the sets of rules based on the concept that slaves were property, not persons[6]. These slaves' codes, which vary slightly different from one state to another, were set in place to enforce some rules that maintained the slave system. As a result, many atrocities and crimes were made legal in the US. Whipping was the minimum that a slave-owner would do to his slave. Some slaves resisted being flogged and as a result were killed instead[7]. Some accounts also refer to black women who were also flogged savagely:

"They usually screamed and prayed, though a few never made a sound."[8]


Gordon, or Whipped Peter, was a slave on a Louisiana plantation who escaped from slavery in 1863. He would go on to serve as a soldier in the United States Colored Troops. Harper’s Weekly published photos of Gordon’s scarred back, the result of his time in slavery. The photos helped make slavery more real for those living in the North and accelerated the Union cause in the war.

The fact that a female slave was pregnant would not be a deterrent for receiving a flogging. Rather, they would dig a hole for the pregnant woman to place her belly in, tie her to a stake, and start whipping her. The punishment did not stop there; and after whipping the enslaved person, the overseers would continue the torture by direct bursting the wounds, then rub them with turpentine and red pepper[9]. Women and girls were used to perform the hard work of plowing[10]. Using a metal collar on a slave who had attempted escape[11]--so as to "make a good nigger out of him"[12] was by no means an uncommon act.

Metal collar used to punish slaves who attempted to escape.

Extrajudicial killings were a common method to discipline other slaves. Sometimes these killings were made public, in order to give a lesson to other slaves who might entertain the slightest idea of freedom. An example where a woman was complicit in a minor rebellion is described as follows:

"The woman he hoisted up by the thumbs, whipp'd and slashed her with knives before the other slaves till she died."[13]


1920: A lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minnesota, by an angry mob of White people, became a popular postcard

Although branding the slaves was common in colonial era as a means for identification, this practice continued in the nineteenth century as a form of punishment. This practice was rife in the US, as well as Europe and their colonies[14].

Mutilation was also another way of taming slaves. A black person might lose his limb for falling asleep during long work hours. Other heinous punishments included pouring tar on the heads of these poor people, and the severing of a limb that might have touched a white person by accident. Nails were inserted into body parts, and hammers were used to knock out teeth. Breaking legs in piecemeal fashion, cutting off sensory organs, and castration were other gruesome methods for asserting a master’s control over his captive[15].

Since US slave codes put the slave under total control of their masters, it is impossible to measure the amount of these practices. Slave patrols were even created to enforce these codes, which also included hanging and decapitation[16]. Even if a master was eager to pardon a slave after he or she was recaptured, according to law, such a thing was illegal and the master could be fined[17].

1920s photo of black children lynched only for being black.

It is even noteworthy to examine the attempts made by many contemporary scientists to theorize slavery. While slavery goes against ethics and human values, they actually tried to justify slavery; the main theme of reasoning, among these so-called scientists, was the "lacking of the intellectual capacity in blacks.” Along these lines of reasoning, in 1851 American physician Samuel A. Cartwright described a term he called “drapetomania.”

According to Cartwright, drapetomania was a mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity. Today, drapetomania is considered an example of pseudoscience, and part of the edifice of scientific racism. The application of these kinds of concepts and techniques of the hard sciences to persons and social phenomena should not be regarded as comforting; it is indeed dehumanization in the name of health.[18]

In an attempt at scientific justification for the injustices of slavery, Cartwright defined Drapetomania as “the disease causing Negroes to run away [from captivity].” 

He wrote:

"If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night–separated into families, each family having its own house–not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed–more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away."[19]


Slaves were punished for a variety of reasons, mostly for working too slow or running away.

It wasn’t only Cartwright who maneuvered on his invented concept of drapetomania and similar concepts. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Dean of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania and the “Father of American Psychiatry,” described African Americans (called negroes at that time) as suffering from an affliction called Negritude, which was thought to be a mild form of leprosy. The only cure that he considered for this disorder was to become white. It is unclear as to how many cases of Negritude were “successfully” treated. The irony of Dr. Rush's medical observations was that he was a leading mental health reformer and co-founder of the first anti-slavery society in America. Dr. Rush's portrait still adorns the official seal of the American Psychiatric Association.

"The Africans become insane, we are told, in some instances, soon after they enter upon the toils of perpetual slavery in the West Indies."

This is a quote by Dr. Rush which is not often cited in discussions on mental illness and African-Americans. However, this quote is valuable in order to understand the traumatic impact of enslavement and oppression on Africans and their descendants.[20]

During the period that chattel slavery was institutionalized in the United States, male or female slaves were frequently raped or were forced to be breeders. Black women were raped right from the time they were kidnapped from their villages in Africa. The justification for this was the stereotypes about strong “sexual appetites” of Africans, which still persists today. Even today, in the US, Black women are less credible rape victims[21]. Sexual assault against Black women did not end by the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation; it persisted after that, even against free blacks and even today[22]. Dr. Ron Daniels, President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College--City University of New York, concerning black slavery in America, wrote that

" many respects 'emancipation' would prove to be a 'cruel hoax' that ultimately left millions of formerly enslaved Africans in a state of political and economic dependency and peonage. The harsh reality is that the vast majority of formerly enslaved Africans were forced into a state of quasi-slavery. Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved Africans. It only 'freed' enslaved Africans in states that were at war with the Union. By some estimates, that left 700,000 to 1 million enslaved Africans in bondage."[23]

As to why the rape of female slaves was common, US laws supported this. The partus law of 1662--from the Latin ‘partus sequitur ventrem’ (which literally means “that which is brought forth follows the womb”--ruled that the children of slave mothers, regardless of the status of the father, will be considered as slaves. This law opened the way for masters to exploit their female slaves and to gain more slaves with need to purchase them. Many Black women died resisting the rape of their masters[24]. In fact, this racist institution was perpetuated through regulation of Black people’s sexual behavior and the sexual abuse of Black women[25].

A Black woman is being hanged for the color of her skin.

From a psychological viewpoint, Nell Irvin Painter states that the wounds inflicted by slavery were to such an extent that Black people who had been subjected to such a practice were “massively disabled psychologically”[26].  

In the crime of rape, male slaves did not survive unscathed; they were also forced to witness physical and sexual abuse of their wives or their loved ones by slaveholders and overseers[27]. Apart from sexual assault against women, men were also subject to rape by the slaveholders[28]. Male slaves’ being the subject of sexual abuse has not been well documented by historians, as their focus was mainly on women who were the victim of rape.

Frederick Douglass, who grew up as a slave in Maryland, reported the systematic widespread sexual assault against Black women. According to him, rape was done by masters to increase the number of their slaves. As a result, there were many mixed-race children who were used also as slaves[29].

It may not be common knowledge, but it is interesting to know that two thirds of America’s Founding Fathers were slaveholders[30]. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most well-known slaveholder among the revered group, also used to exploit his own mixed-race children on his plantation. The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote that all men are created equal, owned 600 slaves[31].

George Washington, also one of the founding fathers, held 318 enslaved people at Mount Vernon, his plantation home. As the first American president, he backed laws in support of slaveholders and signed a fugitive slave law in 1793. According to this law, anyone who harbored or assisted a fugitive faced $500 penalty or imprisonment. Washington never gave up slaveholding until his death. His wrote in his will that his slaves would be free after the death of his wife--something which never happened, as the slaves went to his wife’s inheritors[32].

In this manner, slavery was institutionalized in the American society. Although one might argue that slavery existed in other civilizations, it is unanimously believed that the type of slavery practiced in Americas was unique. As Elvie Barlow writes in “Covered by the Blood”:

“Without a doubt, it was the institution of slavery that built and sustained America. We can never forget the misery of humans whose lives were lost, torn and beaten down by the shackles of slavery. And, until we come to grips with the impact slavery had on America, we will never move in a direction that is healthy for all.”[33]

It is commonly believed that Lincoln freed all slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. However, that historical text only stipulated freedom for those slaves living in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, commented, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." Lincoln was fully aware of the irony, but he did not want to antagonize the slave states loyal to the Union by setting their slaves free. It is clearly evident that the so-called Emancipation Proclamation was not based on human value of freedom, but a strategic decision to prevent the United States from being split into two separate countries[34]. To further demonstrate the true political perspective of the president, it should be added that Lincoln was not an abolitionist and he didn’t believe blacks should have rights equal to whites[35].

It is also clear that slavery did not end by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment,[36] as this amendment recognized slavery as a legal action against prisoners. To put it another way, under the US constitution, it is totally legal to enslave someone if it is part of a punishment for a crime. As a result, according to the Thirteenth Amendment, almost all the persons who had previously worked as slaves continued to work in the same brutal conditions, but under the name of "prisoners.” Another method of treating “freed slaves” was regulated under the Black Codes, which were a continuation of the slavery codes and through which the freedoms of African-Americans were greatly curtailed and they were forced to live on low wages, or were forced to work to pay off the debts due to government fines--something that still persists nowadays. Among such measures that kept slavery in place were the laws making it a crime for a black man to change employers without permission[37]. The same chattel slavery continued intact, but with a different name[38].

The structure formed by the Thirteenth Amendment is the reason why prisons have grown to the status of a for-profit industry in the US and the West in general. Currently, there are almost 2.3 million prisoners in America’s for-profit prisons[39], most of which are Black and Hispanic[40]. Another 5 million adults on probation or parole[41] should also be added to the above number. Meanwhile, the police in the United States are also complicit in the system of modern slavery by charging poor people exorbitant fees for minor motor vehicle infractions[42]. There are also numerous reports of companies that collaborate with and finance these prisons on US soil, or outside of it, in return for cheap labor they receive to produce their merchandise[43]. Federal Prison Industries, a government owned corporation that employs inmates for just 23 cents an hour[44], is an example that shows how slavery is still rampant in America. Prison labor is reported to be used by many companies, such as a US-based manufacturer of solar panels[45]. If you wonder how this is being done legally in the U.S., then you’d better take a look at Thirteenth Amendment that permits such a practice.

Slavery was interwoven, to such an extent, in the American and European societies that their past of slavery has given rise to the current racial attitudes. We constantly notice in the news headlines the police brutality against an unarmed, innocent Black man or woman. Law enforcement personnel commit these crimes without fearing any consequences; in almost every case, no matter what conditions were present at the time and place of the crime, the police involved were acquitted by the courts of law. The current attitude by the US government should be seen as the continuation of past policies regarding slavery. It seems that slave patrols are still on the streets in the U.S.

The modern version of slavery is not limited to for-profit prisons, but small and medium businesses also exploit foreign workers and use them as slaves. Generally, many people from poor countries coming to the US are job seeking, in order to better support their families in their homelands. In order to get to the US, they need a large amount of money to obtain a visa and the travel costs. These so-called guest workers usually borrow the needed money to arrive in US. Upon their arrival, their papers are seized by the businesses for whom they have been contracted to work for. However, the job is not offered immediately and the person is forced to stay in subhuman housing, supplied by his “sponsor” while he awaits his work orders, acquiring a large bill in exorbitant fees in the meantime[46]. Since the guest worker naturally can’t afford these “bills”, he must add them to the other debts he left behind in his homeland. The worker basically becomes indebted for life, thereby guaranteeing that the owner of the industry has a slave, who has to work day and night to pay off his debts. In case of any complaint, he is threatened to be delivered to immigration officials for deportation. In another case, people who are in the US as guest workers with H-2B visas don’t receive the job that they were promised, before entering the US. Upon their arrival their papers are confiscated by the owner, who may tear up passports[47] in case the guest worker wants to leave, thus forcing them to stay and work under whatever conditions he has set.

Many reports point to a system of “legalized slavery,” where workers are denied health care, cannot work for anyone else, and are rented to other employers (even to the military). Sexual harassment is still rampant against these modern slaves, and they are routinely threatened with deportation[48]. They fear deportation because they cannot pay the initial debt they left in their homeland.

It is said that, during the era of chattel slavery, 60,000 slaves[49] were killed each year in the US. Consider that currently 60,000 modern slaves enter the US, and they are deported or fired in case they cannot fulfill the required task. In 2000, a leaked report by the CIA announced that, in that same year, around 50,000 people were sold into slavery in the US in a span of 12 months[50]. The same numbers of people are now entering the United States on an H-2B visa program, which is actually slave labor. In fact, the numbers of slavery visas (named H-2B visas) are officially projected to quadruple in 2016, and this number will stand at 250,000 people every year[51]. This decision is made, despite the guidelines for businesses who are seeking "temporary workers" mandating that they must provide evidence to the Department of Labor that they cannot find Americans for these jobs. These businesses place ads in low-circulation publications, where Americans won’t see them, and thus the problem of providing proof is solved, while many businesses who demand H-2B guest workers are located in regions with double-digit unemployment rates, at the height of recession in 2008[52]. Obviously, the official slavery programs will continue to expand despite all common belief that slavery has long been abolished in the U.S.


Workers and labor organizers in New York City protest exploitation of students on J-1 summer work travel visas who worked at McDonald's. Photo:
Jess Jiang/NPR

Modern slavery is alive and thriving, thanks to US policies around the world[53]. The American style of slavery is not limited to the land boundaries of that nation, and has taken multiple forms. Many American and European companies work with industries that use child or adult slaves for their productions.  For example, the shrimp that U.S. citizens buy at Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco are produced by slaves in Thailand. You may say Thailand is to be blamed for slavery that takes place inside its borders, but you must also bear in mind which countries are financing the slavery. The increased demands from the US and Europe show how 300,000 people in the Thai fishing industry actually work for American and European retailers[54].

In this big business of slavery, children are great assets; they were found sewing clothing for Walmart, Hanes and other European companies[55]. Children are also found working in large scale at factories for various chocolate companies[56], including Hershey, Mars, Nestle, ADM Cocoa, Godiva, Fowler’s Chocolate and Kraft[57]. These companies are their child slave trend as we speak. Recently, the child slaves in Africa from industries that were sponsored by Apple and Microsoft, along with some other companies created a big controversy, for the support these companies are creating for child slavery in Congo [58]. The use of child labor has become so obvious that Nestle CEOs have admitted to the use of this practice in the company[59]. There are numerous other examples that an interested reader can find information on. This is how corporations outsource catastrophe and workers pay the price[60].

Workers protest against working condition in Apple factories, China

Enslaving people is not limited to American and European companies; their respective governments have also a great share in the slave labor. There are many reports pointing to human trafficking through military contracts, which was being performed in Iraq and Afghanistan[61]. The reports show how the US military has abused Third country nationals at their military bases, and exploited them for cheap labor[62].

The sex trafficking industry is a multibillion dollar business that transports and enslaves hundreds of thousands women each year. Sex trafficking and sexual abuse is another form of slavery that existed in past and in today's world. The FBI announced in 2011 that there were 293,000 American children at risk of being sexually abused[63]. Forty percent of these cases involved prostitution of a child or child sexual exploitation[64]. These numbers are mainly about American citizens not foreign nationals; statistics show 83 percent of victims who became victim of this crime were American nationals[65].

According to associate professor of women’s issues and human trafficking Anchalee Panigabutra-Roberts, sex trafficking incidents are much greater than labor trafficking incidents in the U.S., 82% of victims of human trafficking in U.S. are related sex trafficking, while 21% are related to other forms of human trafficking[66]. This while Kimberly Kotrla points out to the substantial numbers of minors and American youth who have fallen victim to human trafficking in the United States every year. According to him there at least 100,000 thousand U.S. children, under the age of 18, who are victims of commercial sex, which is a part of the criminal act of human trafficking[67]. While these are formal numbers, experts contend on the fact these people are an invisible population and it is hard or impossible to gain their exact numbers.

Neoliberalism and globalization are contributors to modern-day slavery and human trafficking in persons[68]. According to Michael A. Peters, Emeritus Professor in Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neoliberalism, which is the dominant political philosophy of the Western world “involves a return to a primitive form of individualism: an individualism which is ‘competitive,’ ‘possessive,’ and construed often in terms of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty”[69].

Although it is believed that neoliberalism creates freedom, it has produced more of the “bad” freedom. As Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at CUNY David Harvey puts it:


“The fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property”[70].

Globalization is also considered as a tool, for more freedom, for rich people to exploit the poor. According to new studies by Oxfam, sixty-two people have the same amount of wealth as that held by half the world combined[71]. This huge, ongoing accumulation of wealth has caused unemployment, misery, and desperation among developing and underdeveloped nations. This inequality and unbalanced wealth accumulation causes some people from underdeveloped countries to be forced into migrating to a place, to work in the so-called free world, which sometimes lead them to become victims of modern slavery. There are several stories of slaves whose extreme poverty has led to their voluntary participation in slavery. It is not voluntary in the sense that an individual wants to participate in such a life, but because the individual has no other choice. Extreme poverty erases any opportunity for legitimate means of making money and leading a normal life. In most cases, such a poor quality of life leads to human trafficking, sex trafficking, and forced labor. This can be an endless cycle, which is impossible to break.

This is how the freedom of "the few" leads to exploitation of others in order to make economic gains, without serving or returning anything to the community for the greater good. That is how neoliberalism has betrayed the cause for which it is fighting. Professor of anthropology Aihwa Ong has argued that Neoliberalism has generated "successive degrees of insecurity for low-skilled citizens and migrants who will have to look beyond the state for the safeguarding of their rights".[72]

The US is a cheerleader in implementing a neoliberal policy, and in line with this policy, we can see that the US has never developed an immigration strategy that effectively deals with the forces that drive migration. In addition, the US has also encouraged human trafficking, and played a great role in generating a viable market for trafficking. This requires express recognition that specific elements of US law and policy actually facilitate the trafficking of human beings into and within the United States. Looking at the current US labor and immigration laws, it is expressly evident that they actually create incentives for trafficking and other forms of migrant exploitation in the United States[73].

Workers protest low wages, demand minimum 15$ per hour.

The criminal penalties levied for drug trafficking are far greater than the ones for criminals who traffic in girls. These traffickers are rarely arrested and put on trial. Instead of the traffickers, it is the victims—largely children--who are relegated to the juvenile justice system, and criminalized for being raped and trafficked. The abused child is going to be incarcerated for the abuse perpetrated against them[74].

US lags behind the rest of the developed world in addressing the issues.

Former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter in his book "A Call To Action" describes the discriminatory view that permeates the American culture, which leads to widespread sexual abuse in American colleges and points to the fact that 95 percent of the victims remain silent:

"A report funded by the U.S. Justice Department found that more than 95 percent of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent, a much larger proportion than among the general public. The report’s analysis, conducted at the State University of New York in New Paltz, revealed that an institution of that size, with about 8,000 students, would be expected to have more than 1,700 female victims of rape or sexual assault during the eleven years of the study. However, only six students reported a sexual assault to the office responsible for initiating proceedings, and only three cases resulted in a campus hearing—with one male student expelled[75]".

Carter also considers the United States partly responsible for perpetrating the ongoing violence against women around the world, since the US holds such a great international influence[76]. He also turns to the role Christianity has played in these crimes, while he utterly mentions that Islam is free from any discrimination against women:

"The relegation of women to an inferior or circumscribed status by many religious leaders is one of the primary reasons for the promotion and perpetuation of sexual abuse. If potential male exploiters of women are led to believe that their victim is considered inferior or “different”, even by God, they can presume that it must be permissible to take advantage of their superior male status. It is crucial that devout believers abandon the premise that their faith mandates sexual discrimination. Islamic scholars assure me that there is no justification for this discrimination in the Koran, but there are specific verses in the Holy Bible that can be interpreted on either side of the issue, and some ascendant male leaders in all faiths take advantage of the interpretation most beneficial to them."








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