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Race, ethnicity and belonging

Race is, ironically, an often-overlooked aspect of the modern slavery debate. BTS editors look critically at the field and introduce their next issue.

Dorret/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The status of ‘slave’ has been inescapably linked to questions of race and racism since at least the late fifteenth century. The transatlantic slave trade set in motion a process through which slave, and the stigma attaching therein, were bound to Africa and Africans in European imaginations. European pretensions to moral ‘superiority’ were in turn codified and justified through a pseudoscience of race that emerged and flourished from the eighteenth century onwards. This ‘scientific racism’ asserted the existence of distinct and hierarchically ordered ‘types’ of human being, then racialised people from Africa as ‘black’ and encoded blackness with the dirt, dishonour, and dependency attributed to slaves. The history of transatlantic slavery is thus powerfully entwined with: 1) the emergence of the idea that race creates impermeable borders between flesh and blood human beings in terms of their capacities, moral worth and rights; and 2) a very specific form of antiblack racism.

Historical campaigns against transatlantic slavery did not substantially undermine or alter this racist foundation. Key white figures in the original European anti-slavery movement condemned the slave trade and slavery as institutions yet did not regard those they sought to emancipate as their peers or equals. Just as current campaigners against child prostitution revile the practice without believing children should be accorded the same civil and political rights as adults, anti-slavery pioneers such as William Wilberforce helped end the slave trade without considering people racialised as black as ‘ready’ for the exercise of freedom.

Today’s anti-slavery campaigners would all almost certainly disagree with Wilberforce on this point, although they often still see fit to celebrate his legacy and example. They also accept—although often without much engagement—that racism was the defining factor of historical slavery. That said, most stridently argue that the situation has now changed. The ‘new abolitionists’ instead tell us that slavery today “affects people of all ages, gender and races”, and that “modern slavers”, in the words of Kevin Bales, “are color-blind”. The common denominator in vulnerability to slavery today is said to be “poverty, not color”.

However, these assertions sit oddly alongside other claims about ‘modern slavery’. According to Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, for example, the overwhelming majority of today’s ‘slaves’ are found in the places once colonised by Europe and America, which is to say places where the majority of the population are not racialised as white. This is reflected in modern anti-slavery campaigning materials, where visual representations of ‘modern slaves’ almost exclusively feature individuals racialised as black or brown.

Race is thus simultaneously highly visible and invisible in the new abolitionism, and one of the aims of this month’s issue of is to contest references to ‘colour-blind modern slavery’. We start from the premise that the major problem here is not so much one of blindness to ‘colour’ as an aversion to seeing white privilege.

Double distortions of history

Two separate yet related distortions of the history of transatlantic slavery are promulgated in talk of ‘modern slavery’. On the one hand, we have the use of transatlantic slavery as the historical comparator for contemporary forms of injustice, exclusion, abuse and violence that in fact bear little or no resemblance to transatlantic slavery. While these cases are frequently connected to racism, they do not necessarily arise directly from antiblackness. For example, South Asian and Filipino migrant domestic workers who end up in appalling conditions, unpaid, raped or beaten by their employers are described as ‘modern slaves’. But in sharp contrast to transatlantic slaves, they actively sought work abroad, and it is frequently fear of deportation that prevents them from quitting or escaping.  Here, the metaphor of slavery deflects attention away from the economic and legal structures rendering certain groups generally vulnerable to abuse, and focuses it instead on the moral failings of ‘bad apples’ taking advantage of individual and isolated vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, representations of ‘modern slavery’ routinely deny, conceal or overlook contemporary forms of injustice, exclusion and violence that do connect directly back to transatlantic slavery. As Saidiya Hartman observes in her remarkable 2007 book Lose Your Mother:

I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. It is the ongoing crisis of citizenship. Questions first posed in 1773 about the disparity between ‘the sublime ideal of freedom’ and the ‘facts of blackness’ are uncannily relevant today.

Transatlantic slavery’s ‘afterlife’ refers to the present reality in which black lives continue to be devalued and imperilled, and whiteness continues to be valued and privileged. Despite abundant evidence that this is the case, the restraints on freedom that are engendered by anti-blackness are uncannily absent from new abolitionist talk of ‘modern slavery’. The millions of black victims of America’s prison industrial complex, for example, are not present in the roll call of ‘modern slaves’ that organisations like Walk Free and Free the Slaves wish to emancipate.

One approach to this double distortion of the history could come from a division of political labour. Some activists would develop a critique of ‘modern slavery’ talk. This would focus on the structures that allow those forms of abuse commonly yet falsely equated with transatlantic slavery to continue. Meanwhile, others would develop a critique of the fiction that we live in a ‘post-racial’ world. The former could give a nod to the continuing facts of racism and white supremacy, while the latter could note the precarity of many groups of workers and migrants in an increasingly neo-liberal world order. This would leave each set of activists free to pursue the distinct projects that they hope will cumulatively add up to a full political transformation. But as articles featured this month will make clear, this kind of ‘fellow traveller’ approach is almost as politically and analytically unsatisfactory as that adopted by the ‘new abolitionists’.

Upcoming articles

Our opening essays by Charles W. Mills, Jared Sexton, Dylan Rodríguez, and P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon Woods are all concerned with the fact that transatlantic slavery was fundamental to the creation of white supremacy as a system of domination. White supremacy—and also patriarchy, as Mills is at pains to note—is thus foundational to the ‘cartography of our ethico-political maps’ of the modern world. The terms of political debate about the modern economic system, as well as the concepts used to legitimate and to contest this system—‘slavery’, ‘freedom’, ‘citizenship’, ‘worker’, ‘migrant’, ‘equality’, and ‘rights’—are all racially loaded. As Sexton explains, critics of ‘the new abolitionism’ can also be blind to this, a point that is further elaborated by Saucier and Woods through a focus on political responses to the continuing deaths in the Mediterranean. Rodríguez’s article then explores the contemporary American prison as animated by the social and cultural logic of racial chattel slavery, rather than its economic logic. In doing so he demonstrates how attention to transatlantic slavery’s afterlife destabilises critiques that take neoliberalism as the analytical master category.

In week two, we continue the focus on transatlantic slavery’s afterlife. Tania Golash-Boza explores how deportation laws in the US, which are framed as ‘colourblind’, in practice produce radically and racially disparate outcomes. As with America’s prison-industrial complex, these outcomes are in line with social and cultural logic of racial slavery. Ana Lucia Araujo then considers the future created by racial slavery in Brazil, a context very different from the US in the sense that its post-emancipation history does not include formal, legal racial segregation. And yet here as well, ‘the facts of blackness’ remain bleak and whiteness continues to be valorised. The theme of whiteness is considered further by Cecily Jones, who examines gender in the relationship between slavery and race in the British Caribbean historically and today. Nicki Frith and Kate Hodgsen’s article turns to recent attempts within the French Republic to engage with its history of slavery and slave trading. They ask whether memorialisations of slavery have in fact ‘domesticated’ the past to create a nation-centred narrative of belonging that continues to eschew the very real socio-economic problems faced by those of African descent.

In week three, we turn to other links connecting race and restraints on freedom that are (selectively) described by the new abolitionists as ‘modern slavery’. Our articles reveal the complex and often contradictory relationships between the economic and the political, and question the policy prescriptions of organisations like Walk Free. Alf Nilsen’s article draws attention to the fact that the vulnerability of the Avidasi in India to what is often dubbed ‘modern slavery’ results from neoliberal economic reforms and the loss of land and livelihood. Jaysleen Raj’s piece shows how the crisis in the tea industry wrought by these reforms has forced workers to leave tea plantations, where caste discrimination played a relatively minor role in their lives, and re-enter areas of the informal economy where the caste hierarchy is much more oppressive.

Will Guy’s article on the Roma in Europe alerts us to the fact that there are histories and living legacies of slavery that are bound up with race and racism, yet not with antiblackness. Relatedly, Teodora Todorova analyses the ‘warehousing’ of Palestinians by the Israeli state as a tactic of racialised governance first developed in the US to manage the ‘problem’ of blackness. She shows that such methods of repression can be adopted and adapted by states with very different histories to control and restrict the populations they deem unentitled to, and incapable of exercising, freedom.

Arthur Scarritt traces the connections between colonialism, racism and dispossession in the context of Peru, while Jillian Marsh highlights the historical and ongoing processes of dispossession of indigenous Australians that were set in motion by colonisation. Marsh further shows that the recommendations of Andrew Forrest, the founder of Walk Free, for addressing this reveal the nature of the ‘freedom’ he wishes to bestow upon ‘modern slaves’ around the world. We conclude this series with a piece from Gurminder Bhambra and John Holmwood that critiques the policy recommendations of individuals blind to the connections between slavery, past colonialism, and the present that we currently inhabit. Only reparations, they argue, will enable a social democratic solution to the problems continuing from the legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession.

Multiple systems of domination are at play in shaping the social and global order, and we are not fool enough to imagine that the intractable analytical and political problems this presents can be resolved by a handful of short commentaries. We do, however, hope that the articles we feature this month will stimulate acknowledgment of, and debate about, the necessarily and unavoidably racial character of not just talk about ‘modern slavery’, but also of talk about the need to move ‘Beyond Trafficking and Slavery’.

About the authors

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a professor in social research at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. She has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life, which she has explored through studies of employment relations in the privatized utilities, as well as through research on prostitution and on sex tourism. Julia is most recently the author of Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedomnow out from Palgrave (2015). She has published extensively on prostitution, ‘trafficking’, and ‘modern slavery’, and is also the author of Prostitution, Power and Freedom (1998, Polity) and Children in the Global Sex Trade (2005, Polity).

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Joel is currently a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur. Your can follow him on twitter at @joelquirk.


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