Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave (1796) by William Blake. Wikimedia/Public domain.The contemporary movement against ‘modern-day slavery’ makes a grave analytical and political error that, unfortunately, is all too common in our antiblack world. By ‘antiblack world,’ I refer to how blackness continues to represent danger and sexual savagery. It is the mark of the least desirable, the position against which all other oppressed subjects calibrate their humanity—as in, as hard as my life may be, at least I am not black.
Black people collectively generate no respect, honor, or value, let alone ‘rights’ or power—not because they are poor, live under corrupt governments, or live during a time of population explosion (all leading explanations for the emergence of ‘modern-day slavery’), but rather simply because of their existence as such. As much as blackness is the mark of the non-human, it is also the negation of ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood.’ Long after anti-colonial movements the world over have permanently discredited white supremacy, the principle of antiblackness remains stubbornly intact: it is best to be white; but if that proves beyond reach, at least do not be black.
Antiblackness is the product of racial slavery. The enduring effect of this is that the slave is both paradigmatically black and construed in terms of a bestial and openly vulnerable sexuality. This spectre of blackness, understood as sexual savagery, is present whenever the discourse of ‘slavery’ is evoked, even when the subjects are racialized as non-black or white. The essential failure of organizations fighting against ‘modern-day slavery’ to recognize even the basic features of the relationship between antiblackness and slavery produces a number of serious consequences.
First, the movement against ‘modern-day slavery’ deploys non-racial language to define the racialized realities that it addresses, an approach that solidifies the existing racial regime. If we situate our analysis within the archive of the black social movement, we learn that the best way to preserve the racial status quo is to simply re-present it in non-racial terms. An abundance of empirical evidence reveals that twenty-first century American society is as racially hierarchical as it has ever been. Several recent books demonstrate this well, such as Racism without racists: Colorblind racism and the persistence of inequality in the United States by Bonilla-Silva or The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol. Whites are the single most segregated racial group, and wealth, health, education, and employment disparities have increased rather than diminished in the post-civil rights era.
Yet this evidence remains unpersuasive in the face of the prevailing non-racial logic, which maintains any remaining inequities are due to something other than racism.
The non-racial language of the ‘modern-day slavery’ discourse is particularly deceptive when it comes to the power relations in which the violent carnality of ‘race’ is simultaneously the normative process by which ‘sex’ is conferred.
Given western civilization’s basis in the sexual plunder of slavery and colonialism, it is unsurprising that today’s anti-slavery movement is inordinately preoccupied with women’s sexual victimization. For instance, the focus on white women from eastern Europe working in commercial sex recalls the fight by British and US feminists against trafficking in prostitutes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and what they termed at the time the ‘white slave trade.’ In both the earlier period and the contemporary one, the name of ‘slave’ marks these women as socially dangerous because of the implied proximity to blackness. It also labels them as victims undeserving of their plight, all the better to broaden the scope of state surveillance of sexuality.
Second, the anti-slavery movement is ahistorical. Again, black history is a corrective. Abolitionism against racial slavery showed us how ‘rescue’ movements are always self-referential: they aim at the salvation of the rescuer, not the rescued. White abolitionists frequently argued that slavery was an abomination because it made whites lazy and morally weak. W.E.B. DuBois reminds us that the American Civil War began as a war to preserve slavery, to keep it in the Union, not to abolish it; and it only became a war to end slavery as a result of the self-activity of the enslaved Africans themselves who stole away their labors from the South and forced the issue of abolition on the North. Anti-slavery does not necessarily mean anti-racist, and ‘rescue’ missions must be politically suspect.
Third, the moral authority that anti-slavery mobilizes today partly stems from the memory of black liberation that it implicitly draws upon—all the while explicitly distancing itself from black historical struggle. The movement often contrasts the ‘facts’ of ‘modern-day slavery’ with those of the ‘old’ (racial) slavery in order to emphasize how much worse the situation is today. The moral imperative of abolitionism today, therefore, rests not simply in objections to human oppression. It is also tied to white people’s unconscious memories as the perpetrators of racial slavery. Anti-slavery today seeks to exorcise this history. As such, it is anything but non-racial, despite its language.
Fourth, while slavery is evoked to cloak contemporary abolitionism with a political saliency and emotional urgency that only memory of the foundational institution of the modern world can sustain, there is a decided absence of solidarity with actual black suffering today.
Part of this problem lies with an incorrect understanding of slavery itself. Racial slavery was never simply supreme labor exploitation, or even being held captive. It was foremost about the accumulation and usefulness of black bodies for all manner of desire, whim, fantasy, or need of white society. Racial slavery was primarily a symbolic economy, an arrangement of meanings about who was human, which bodies had integrity, who could deploy violence with impunity, and the interdependence of ‘freedom’ and slavery.
As the political economy has changed with time, the symbolic economy of antiblackness persists. The ubiquitous spectacle today of the police killing unarmed black people in the street, in their homes, and in stores reiterates the ongoing power relations of slavery.
Where is the anti-slavery movement when black people are being gunned down today by both state and civil society? Where are the abolitionists now when the black community endures all manner of premature death? Where is agitation over ‘modern-day slavery’ when black schools are degraded and then closed altogether?
I suggest that the invisibility of black struggle today highlights how the current anti-slavery movement hinges on assertions of Africans’ culpability in both racial slavery and its ‘modern-day’ version. In this narrative, African agents foist slavery upon an unwilling west and Africa is construed, again, as the locus of criminality and barbarism. In short, the current abolitionists are prosecuting their cause using the original terms of racial slavery, many centuries later.
The primary corrective for the problems of the anti-slavery movement is the same as for the problem of the antiblack world generally: solidarity with black historical struggle. For instance, lessons from black history that are relevant to the ‘modern-day slavery’ question include: 1) law is not a viable avenue for social redress: reform ends up extending, rather than ameliorating, black suffering; 2) work will not set you free: black people’s hard labor had little bearing on black self-efficacy, to the point where now, given the rates of black unemployment and incarceration, black people are more valuable to the economy idled and quarantined in ghettos or prisons; 3) self-defense is a prerequisite for self-determination: the unrelenting public spectacles of black vulnerability at the hands of the law and the unceasing reiteration of black pathology are meant to disqualify any expression of black self-possession.
These lessons directly confront the anti-slavery movement’s priority on human rights as the privileged vector for justice; they address the movement’s arbitrary distinction between ‘slavery’ conditions and all other conditions of ‘work’ under capitalism, including labor that has been rendered surplus altogether from the global economy; and they call into question the implicit requirement that the legitimate subjects of ‘modern-day slavery’ are passive victims, rather than people engaged in various modes of self-authored activity, including armed resistance.
Ultimately, what is called into question is the very conception of justice on which this movement trades. As a result of racial slavery the very existence of the modern era is unjust. The search for justice within an unjust paradigm, therefore, is premature at best, since we have yet to adequately explain the paradigm. Before we can conceive of justice, then, we must focus on ethics, on accurately explaining relations of power, including those in which the movement to end ‘modern-day slavery’ arises.Malcolm X's favourite film, Nothing but a Man (1964), about life in 1960s Alabama, directed by Michael Roemer.
This essay is extrapolated from a larger research paper entitled “Surrogate Selves: Notes on anti-trafficking and antiblackness,” Social Identities 19(1) 2013, 120-134.
This article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.