The Historical Link Between Race and Human Trafficking

The left pie chart shows the statistics on Labor Trafficking and the right pie chart shows statistics on Sex Trafficking.

Source: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Women and Children

Human Trafficking takes advantage of the vulnerabilities of individuals in order to exploit them, and therefore has no boundaries as to who is actually trafficked.  With that being said, certain groups are more likely to be targeted for trafficking than others due to their higher likelihood of being disadvantaged in some fashion.

One study indicates that of all those reported of being a victim of sex trafficking in 2011, 40.4% of the victims were African American, while only 26% of victims were white.  In same study but on labor trafficking, 56% of victims were Hispanic and only 15% were Asian.  Both of the above statistics illustrate that specific races are targeted for each specific form of human trafficking. In the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Person’s Report of 2009, it is noted that immigrants are specifically vulnerable to labor trafficking due to the discrimination, high rates of unemployment, corruption, poverty, and other factors that are common among the new immigrant community, giving reason to higher proportions of Asians and Hispanics involved in labor trafficking. A 2007 study yielded similar results, demonstrating that 37% of labor trafficking victims were Asian and 44% of sex trafficking suspects were African American. In addition, the same study concluded that of the incidents of human trafficking reported in which race was provided, 39% of victims were Hispanic and 33% black. In their 2008-2010 report, the U.S. Department of Justice found that 87 of the victims of human trafficking were categorized as illegal or undocumented immigrants, with 21 of them having received T-visas and 46 of them possessing a pending visa application.   These statistics leave us with a troubling and seemingly unexplainable trend of exploitation.  Let’s look at the history of these groups to shed some light on these statistics.

The sexual exploitation of African Americans began during the time of slavery, when slaves, most of whom were African American, were treated as property, and therefore, were often used for sexual exploitation.  One article from the UCLA supports this idea, illustrating that because of this exploitation of black women, America developed the misguided ideology that black women were sexual deviants, and therefore should be the targets of sexual abuse. This white exploitation of blacks also perpetuated slavery by achieving the goal of dehumanizing and degrading the lives of African Americans. These ideas carried over to the post era of slavery into the Jim Crow laws, which also limited the relationships of African Americans, going so far as to forbade interracial relationships. While the American system of African American Slavery and later the Jim Crow laws are no longer existent, the effects of these practices are still felt today, as reflected by the high percentages of African Americans being trafficked.

The same is true for poor immigrants to the Americas.  Historically, immigrants in the U.S. were typically marginalized and treated as second class citizens due to their poverty, language barrier,  and lack of education.  This began in the early Americas as indentured servitude, a system in which wealthy Americans would pay for the passage of poor Europeans to America, and in return, the immigrant would work for this person until they worked off their debt for their passage. As one source illustrates, the more common form of most immigration that most think of did not begin until the early 1800’s and continued on and off throughout the 20th century. In most cases of historical immigration, immigrants would come to the America’s and be pushed into poor slums, which were often divided ethnically.  This created pockets of different cultures in the Americas in these poor, underdeveloped projects for immigrants, which left many immigrants vulnerable.  Because of this, immigrants were constantly on the search for a source of income, and typically found it in some sort of low grade job, which left them susceptible to being taken advantage of. This sentiment from early immigration is still evident today as a majority of trafficking victims in the U.S. are in fact immigrants. This would only make sense as the ACLU asserts that  “in the U.S., immigrant women and children are particularly vulnerable to the deceptive and coercive tactics of traffickers because of their lower levels of education, inability to speak English, immigration status, and lack of familiarity with U.S. employment protections.”  The historical “immigrant-phobia” is still reflected in the high numbers of ethnic immigrants, Hispanic and Asian, who are trafficked due to their new vulnerabilities resulting from being in a new country.

Historically, African Americans and many groups of immigrants were treated poorly and taken advantage of in the U.S.  These sentiments are still apparent today in the large percentages of racial and ethnic minorities who fall victim to human trafficking.


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