The American humorist Will Rogers once said, "It ain't that we're so dumb; it's just that what we know ain't so."
Certain things we know to be true. We know that the South kept slaves, and the North fought a righteous war of liberation. We know that the slave trade was legal right up to the Civil War. We know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These things we know—and none of it is true.
On the other hand, most of us do not know that slavery not only exists throughout the world today; it flourishes. Slavery is legal nowhere, yet it is practiced everywhere. With an estimated 27 million people in bondage worldwide, it is the second or third most lucrative criminal enterprise of our time, after drugs, and maybe guns. More than twice as many people are in bondage in the world today as were taken in chains during the entire 350 years of the African Slave Trade.
In seeking to place blame, we're tempted to point to the "emerging nations" as the culprits, whereas in fact slavery exists in such "civilized" countries as China, Denmark, England, France, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. Most Americans are clueless that slavery is alive in their country, thriving in the dark, practiced in many forms and unexpected places.
As a student of history, I had always assumed that slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment. Some years back, I had written nearly an entire book on the pre–Civil War slave trade when I stumbled on an account of slavery in present-day America. My first response—a common one, as it turns out—was denial: "No way. Slavery has had no place here since the time of Lincoln."
Only after extensive research did I discover that slavery has always existed on this continent, from the days of its European discovery right up to the present day. Christopher Columbus enslaved the Taino Indians, setting a precedent that was followed by every European power to claim land in the New World. Slavery became the social and economic order. After the Civil War, and for decades right up to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, planters practiced a form of debt bondage known as peonage, binding workers and their families to the land in an unending cycle of slavery.
For more than sixty years, our own government has enabled worker abuse and slavery through the mismanagement of its "guest worker" program. And now, with the global population more than tripled since World War II, and with national borders collapsing around the world, people—in their desperate quest for a way to survive—have become easy targets for human traffickers. And once again, America is a prime destination.
So how many slaves are we talking about? According to a U.S. State Department study, some 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States from at least 35 countries and enslaved each year. Some victims are smuggled into the United States across the Mexican and Canadian borders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying either real or forged papers. The old slave ship of the 1800s has been replaced by the 747. Victims come here from Africa, Asia, India, Latin America, and the former Soviet Republics.
Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. In order to afford the journey, they fork over their life savings, and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondage. They can be found—or more accurately, not found—in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers, and victims of sexual exploitation.
These people do not represent a class of poorly paid employees, working at jobs they might not like. They exist specifically to work, they are unable to leave, and are forced to live under the constant threat and reality of violence. By definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but make no mistake: It is the slave trade.
Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers; many are stolen or enticed from the streets of their own cities and towns. Some sources, including the federal government, estimate in the hundreds of thousands the number of U.S. citizens—primarily children—at risk of being caught in slavery annually. Although these figures may be inflated, the precise number of slaves in the United States, whether trafficked in from other countries or enslaved from our own population, is simply not known. We're looking at a crime that lives in the shadows; it's hard to count what you can't find.
What is particularly infuriating is the fact that this is a crime that, as a rule, goes unpunished. For the moment, let's accept the government's estimate of about 17,000 foreign nationals trafficked into slavery in the United States per year; coincidentally there are also about 17,000 people murdered in the United States each year. The national success rate in solving murder cases is about 70 percent; around 11,000 murders are "cleared" annually. But according to the U.S. government's own numbers, the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is less than 1 percent. In 2007, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division obtained 103 convictions for human trafficking, with an average sentence of 9 years.
And to further complicate matters, when they are rescued, survivors often deny their situation. There are several reasons for this: the language barrier, a deep sense of shame, fear for their lives and those of their families in their country of origin, and a sense of obligation to pay their debt. In addition, the traffickers program them to fear the police and immigration officials. And in some instances, they come to identify with their keepers.
We don't yet know how President Obama will respond to the human trafficking crisis; it's too soon to tell. But we do know that the response under the Bush Administration was inadequate on any number of levels. In a speech on trafficking, Bush once stated, "We're beginning to make good, substantial progress. The message is getting out: We're serious. And when we catch you, you'll find out we're serious. We're staying on the hunt." Strong words. But the unvarnished truth is, with less than 1 percent of the bad guys apprehended, and less than 1 percent of the victims freed, it sounds a lot more like spin than fact; meanwhile, the flow of human "product" into America continues practically unchecked.
This is the kind of knowledge you can't "unlearn"; the only question is, what do you do with the information once you have it? It's a question we must all address for ourselves. We tend to think of our America as the country where slavery has no place; the dire truth is, we are pretty far from freedom, and it will take a lot of work and dedication—by the government, and by us—to make it so.