Historians Against Slavery Conference Recap

October 01, 2015 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 

Last week, Historians Against Slavery hosted “Using History to Make Slavery History” at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Over the course of three days, panelists and participants discussed topics ranging from activism to business solutions. View a collection of the live tweets on Storify, or read on for a brief recap of main themes and discussions.

Addressing the Legacies of Slavery and Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

The keynote by Dr. Ed Baptist set the tone for the conference: a cautionary approach to the use of historical abolition as inspiration for the contemporary antislavery movement. To start off, he argued that the slavery of the 19th century never ended – it was truncated and eventually morphed into new forms. In short, slavery continued because Reconstruction failed. From the overturning of the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883 to the Jim Crow laws, systematic discrimination as well as the U.S. prison-industrial complex are vestiges of chattel slavery.

Today, the average African American will spend 30% of his or her working life either in prison or marked as an ex-felon. Moreover, prison labor in the U.S. is largely left out of state-imposed forced labor discussions. In U.S. government reports, North Korea may be condemned for its gulags, but there are no mentions of the largely black prison labor force fighting fires in California or those working in Louisiana’s Angola prison. The 13th amendment which marks the abolition of slavery has a clause permitting the use of prison labor:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

This exception created opportunity for private corporations to profit off of the labor of inmates. It’s with this reality that activists today must question and challenge the meaning of true justice. Too often, anti-trafficking activism turns into a “white savior” complex that focuses on rescue abroad. For effective social change, Dr. Baptist posited that today’s activists must come to terms with their own privileges and reach out to current black freedom activists.

Consider the following questions:

1. How has the need to “protect” the public been used to prop up mass incarceration?

2. What is the culpability of U.S. institutions in the afterlife of chattel slavery?

Bridging the Gap between Activism and Academia

Activists’ audiences tend to be activists, scholars’ audiences tend to be scholars and the mixing of the two doesn’t occur. Based on the work that they’re doing, activists and academics’ motivations and approaches to the same issues greatly vary. Where scholars tend to focus on ambiguities and labor trafficking, the activists’ arena appears to mostly implement best practice models and highlight sex trafficking.

Dr. Joel Quirk asserted that there have been types of anti-trafficking interventions that have led to collateral damage and casual politics that has done more harm to people and the movement. The current conversation constructs human trafficking as an important issue but fails to challenge the political and economic present. He adds that this impasse in which critical literature is not engaged with policy circles is partly due to the problem that the critical approach is, at times, not presented to be or is simply not understood as practical or useful.

In the Q & A, the panelists pointed out that research and academia can sometimes appear too critical and too detached. But, truly, scholars don’t dedicate their time on something they don’t have an inherent passion for. Moving forward, what needs to happen is a sustained conversation about how the two perspectives should speak to and inform one another. On the academics’ side, they have tried to influence activism by facilitating the creation of programs for student activism; offering services and skills to raise issues with anti-trafficking organizations; participating in joint collaborations; and producing content for the public domain (e.g., facts and figures for museum exhibits). However, it's also important for academics to get a better understanding of the limitations and structures that NGOs and non-profits operate in and how those affect the way that they work.

Dr. Genevieve LeBaron closed with the following questions:

  1. People want stats and data, so how do we manage the tension between accuracy and awareness raising?
  2. We need to understand the economic and political history of where contemporary slavery came from and what allows it to thrive, so how do we translate knowledge and advocacy into concrete political and social change?

Narrating Victims and Survivors’ Stories

When reading stories about survivors of human trafficking, it’s easy to notice certain trends and patterns. Typically, government reports collapse identities into a moral international competition where the state’s failure to protect people’s innocence is a moral failure worthy of shame. This practice is evident when stories begin with a name, the person’s age and what country he or she came from. Another practice is the division made between the innocent victims and the complicit criminals.

Children, in these cases, are often portrayed as helpless and vulnerable. Which, to a great extent, the trafficking of children occurs because of certain vulnerabilities specific to their age group. However, what’s happened is that these narratives and well-intentioned efforts have become so predicated on purity and innocence that they’ve mostly succeeded in inciting anxiety and prejudices rather than effective action. The factor most lamented is children’s sexual violation, and so when rendered visible, it is children’s sexual experience that’s shown rather than the economic and political instabilities that led to their exploitation.

What’s needed is a discussion about the structural factors that led to their trafficking situations and how the improvement of individual and collective rights might change these economic, political and social realities. Most importantly, these stories cannot and should not function to re-victimize the survivors. Nor should they be co-opted for other people’s purposes.

The survivors’ narratives, expertise and experiences must guide anti-trafficking work. So, instead of filling in the blanks or trying to dictate the framing of these stories, victims and survivors should have the space to have feelings and have difficult conversations about their lived experiences and what comes after.

Reflect on the following points:

1. Our job is not to be a voice for the voiceless. Our role is to be a megaphone since we have the capital and the privilege to give survivors a platform to share their story. They are not voiceless.

2. What does self-emancipation mean to someone who’s been trafficked? How would they like to tell their story, if at all?

Questioning the Effectiveness of Government and Business Policies

The reason human trafficking is popular with politicians is because it casts the state in a positive role. The state and government policy are seen as the savior and solution, respectively. Policies need to be open, vigilant and fair in order to work; yet, most policies against human trafficking tend to point out the obvious but fail to hold accountable the actors that perpetuate the cycle of trafficking. Sure, there are brokers and gangs that physically exploit individuals, but there are also corporations and government actors who do not have direct interactions with these victims but who greatly profit from their labor.

Therefore, what ends up happening is that governments publicly condemn and abhor these practices, but the supply chain transparency legislation passed only requires companies to acknowledge the problem. There are no specifics on parts of the supply chain they must actively target for change or timelines related to shifting to more responsible suppliers. Why such a limited response? Lawyers in the corporate field are concerned with risk and the thought that if they open their supply chains, they’re opening themselves up to litigation. So, they devolve responsibility to the lower supply chain levels. There’s also the concern with cost. How much more will companies have to pay to be an extra percentage point sure that their supply chains are free of slave labor?

Think about the following thoughts:

1. What would politics and business look like if there is no human trafficking?

2. What are you willing to give up, and how much are you willing to pay to make sure that your products are slavery-free?

Topics: Academia

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies. 

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