Anti-Blackness in the Anti-Trafficking Movement: “Modern-Day Slavery” and the Erasure of Racial Slavery

I read this passage in Tryon P. Woods’ 2013 article entitled, “Surrogate Selves: Notes on Anti-Trafficking and Anti-Blackness”:

“…the anti-trafficking movement is mired in an ahistoricism symptomatic of our anti-black world. In this case, slavery is evoked to cloak the movement with political saliency and emotional urgency, while obscuring the ongoing calculus of racial slavery’s afterlife, the sexual terror of enslavement and coloniality, and the conspicuous absence of both from the discourse on human trafficking.” (Woods, Tryon. (2013) “Surrogate Selves: Notes on Anti-Trafficking and Anti-Blackness.” Social Identities, Volume 19, Number 1, 1 January 2013 , pp. 122)

He goes on to analyse the rhetorical/discursive role of the presumably-trafficked Nigerian sex worker in Europe, and the ways in which anti-trafficking discourse (especially through journalistic representations [journalist-as-humanitarian-savior]) obscures the criminalization and incarceration of Black/brown/mobile/fecund bodies in the EU.

The argument that ‘modern day slavery’ emanates from African cultural backwardness raises a raw moment of historical reckoning and lays bare the essential anti-blackness subtending the journalistic outrage and strident advocacy against human trafficking. The anti-trafficking movement is historically and politically connected to the long-standing, and recently reinvigorated, position that Africans were as culpable for the transatlantic slave trade (and, consequently, for its aftermath as well) as were Europeans and Americans (compare Gates, 2010). This position aims to diffuse the reparations movement and conjoins the colorblind logic of the post-civil rights era: like simultaneous penalties against both sides in a sporting match, the fouls off-set one another, and therefore the only recourse is rhetorical reconciliation and the resumption of business as usual. The deadly effects of the structures of control and accumulation under the regime of colorblindness, or in the case of post-colonial Africa, the re-colonization of the continent by neoliberal global capital, are thereby disavowed (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). (Woods, 2013, pp. 124)

It’s a thought-provoking article, for sure. I’ve worked with anti-trafficking organizations since 2011, and I’ve constantly had to navigate spaces where trafficked and enslaved Black bodies/lives were used as mere rhetorical devices. The idea is that “chattel slavery is over” so we can “move on to address ‘modern-day slavery.’ The term ‘modern-day slavery’ itself is imprecise. The legal definitions of slavery and trafficking differ. Slavery is defined in the 1926 Slavery Convention (Article 1.1) as:

“…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised….”

The 1926 Convention’s definition of slavery was broadened to include forced or compulsory labor in 1930 in the ILO Convention (No. 29) concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Article 2.1):

“…all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Note that Trafficking in Persons,

in Article 3, paragraph (a) of the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons as:

 “The recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.”

-fits this definition, given that it entails the use of threat, force and other means of subjection (Action) for the purpose of exploitation. Victims of trafficking are most certainly “under the menace of penalty” as they are exploited by their traffickers. In fact, “exploitation” (within the context of Trafficking in Persons) is defined by the United Nations to include “slavery and slavery-like practices.”

Why do I point this out? Well, it’s imprecise to use the terms “slavery” and “human trafficking” interchangeably, because, while they overlap, the former refers specifically to the condition of being deprived of one’s autonomy and the fruit of one’s labors, while the latter refers more broadly to the entire chain of transactions and actions that constitute the act trafficking in persons. Legally, all persons involved in the recruitment, transfer, harboring and receipt of a person by means of threat, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception (for the purpose of exploitation) are considered culpable in the act (traffickers.)

The last point is key to Woods’ argument that the current anti-trafficking movement pivots on assertions of Africans’ culpability in the Trans-Atlantic (TAST) and Indian Ocean slave trades, and the “afterlife of slavery.” All parties involved in the transactions and actions of trafficking in persons are considered culpable, but when it comes to the overplayed significance of African intermediaries in the Slave Trade, this culpability eases the burden on European and American slave traders who trafficked in “human chattel.” This point is where Woods’ argument bridges “libidinal economies” (Lyotard, 1974, further developed by Hortense Spillers, Frank Wilderson, Saidya Hartman, Joy James, Jared Sexton to account for anti-Blackness, Social Death, and “the afterlife of slavery”) with monetary/capital economies. Sexton defines the “libidinal economy” as:

“the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious.” (Wilderson, Frank B. 2010. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 49)

This relates specifically to fantasies, fears, aversions, desires and pleasures that drive representations of and relations with Black bodies- as formerly-enslaved and now free bodies, and as post/colonial subjects. The revulsions that fuel the Gaze upon Black bodies are part and parcel of this “libidinal economy.” How does this relate to the anti-trafficking movement’s rhetoric?  The (a)historical revisionism is what enables the white/Western Savior to “speak for” the trafficked and enslaved Other without acknowledging the ways in which they’ve benefited from racialized, classed and gendered disparities borne of racial slavery. It is also a salve- a cleansing ritual of sorts that absolves the white-identified subject of any wrongdoing or vestigial culpability. It is a way of asserting one’s “anti-racist” status, while distancing the white Self from the Black subject. In keeping with many white abolitionists in the 19th century, the modern “anti-trafficking movement” relies heavily upon rhetorical tactics that belie the “goodness” of the Western advocate who speaks about and for the Other (“giving voice to the voiceless”), while distancing them- the white Self- from the Other.

This revisionism also effaces the lived experiences of enslaved Blacks, as well as the valid bases for descendants of enslaved Blacks’ calls for reparations (in keeping with the overarching intrumental logic of neoliberalism). If Africans were “culpable” in the trafficking and enslavement of their fellow man, then the West owed nothing to the descendants of trafficked and enslaved Africans. Quite literally, mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric traffics in the Black-body-rendered-invisible. Furthermore, these rhetorical tactics also suggest, in the vein of liberal ‘colorblindness’, that structural racism is due, in part, to the participation of African slavers, and thus, white subjects are no longer beholden to the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, which indicted whiteness.

In this sense, “Africans enslaved Africans!” is a precursor to “Black-on-Black crime”- yet another assertion that ignores the historical and social realities. To acknowledge “Africans enslaved Africans” as true, one must also recognize that “Europeans enslaved Europeans” and “Asians enslaved Asians” and so on. (What does one mean by “African” “Asian” or “European”? These terms are imprecise, but they are the terms at hand.)

Orlando Patterson’s “Slavery and Social Death” addresses this, noting that historically, most forms of slavery are “intrusive”- occurring within- wherein the enslaved are brought into the borders of a dominant society.

“When a people was conquered, it was by definition the conquerors who were the outsiders to the local community and the conquered who were the natives. In this situation one of the fundamental elements of slavery- natal alienation- was almost impossible to achieve either intrusively or extrusively. But the nature of the case, the conquered native population could not be natally alienated in intrusive terms, for it was the master class who would be the intruders.” (Patterson, Orlando. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 111)

One need only to look to the history of the Roman Empire in what would become Europe- as the Romans waged war and expanded and maintained the Empire’s borders, they conscripted the colonized into military service, sexual slavery, debt slavery, and so on. These enslaved included peoples who would later constitute the Germans, the French, the British and so on.  If one looks at Asia- particularly, pre-modern Korea, one finds a country that was once a slave society wherein up to a third of Koreans were enslaved (debt slavery). Historically, slavery on the continent of Africa was also primarily inter-group, relating to warfare and/or assertions of socio-economic status.

Also, note that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, coupled with settler colonialism distinguishes “intrusive” forms of slavery from “extrusive” forms of slavery. The enslavers were non-native settlers (settler colonists are never native) even as they engaged in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans. This reality is elided in modern anti-trafficking rhetoric, which tends to assert the fixity and sanctity of national borders by treating trafficking victims and migrant laborers as embodiments of the border which must be managed or controlled in liberal biopolitical regimes (which include, but are not limited to immigration detention facilities, prisons, foster homes for unaccompanied youth, and so on).

In a previous blogpost, entitled, “Heroes, Villains, and Victims: Why the Anti-Trafficking Discourse is Problematic,” I addressed the racialized villainization of “pimps” in anti-(sex)-trafficking, writing:

By representing traffickers as ‘exceptional’ figures- notably in the classist, racialized trope of the “pimp,” anti-trafficking discourse occludes the truth that traffickers are often those closest to the victim. In many cases, traffickers are parents, family members, intimate partners, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, police officers, and other ‘trusted’ authority figures. The trafficker is not simply the shadowy figure in the alley who ‘snatches’ runaways or migrants.

This passage relates to Woods’ passage on page 123:

The contemporary discourse on ‘trafficked persons’ and ‘modern-day slavery’ severely contorts the historical context of racial slavery, as well as the contradictory history of abolitionism that actually sought to contain the immiserated body by extending the apparatus of control, surveillance, and punishment over the formerly enslaved. News articles describing ‘Nigeria’s ‘‘respectable’’ slave trade’ reveal a projection of Western nationhood’s racial make-up and erotic paranoia by securing the discursive connections between Nigerian women selling sex in Europe and the ‘new slavery’ (Little, 2004). In these articles, published on the BBC website between 2000 and 2010, reporting on thousands of Nigerian young women ‘forced to work as prostitutes in Mali ‘‘slave camps,’’’ on the rescue of ‘about 200 ‘‘child slaves’’ from forests in the southwest,’ or the ‘hundreds of girls from Nigeria sold into sexual slavery in Europe each year [and] trafficked through England,’ modern-day slavery is constructed as a mundane feature of contemporary Africa (BBC, 2010; Olukoya,
2003; Pannell, 2001). In this narrative, African agents foist slavery upon an unwilling West and Africa is construed, again, as the locus of criminality and barbarism. For example, the articles assert, ‘human trafficking is not something that happens on the
criminal fringes of Nigerian society. It is woven into the fabric of national life’ (Little, 2004, p. 2). The articles portray the parents as willing participants in the victimization of their children. One of the articles quotes the president of UNICEF UK, David Puttnam, who states that what ‘frustrates him here, in Nigeria, more than the poverty that is its root cause, is the attitude that accompanies it.’


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