In Modern Slavery Reporting, scholars debate the nature and definition of slavery and all its horrific consequences. The history of the institution of slavery is marked by centuries of brutal exploitation, enforced servitude, and systematic abuse. Today modern slavery continues to be a form of contemporary social violence, defined as the systematic violation of the human rights of a person. This type of social reality constitutes one of the most feared and clandestine abuses of power and authority in the world. Modern slavery manifests itself in the forced labor, child labor, slave trade, bonded labor, debt, and payday loan industry, as well as in white-collar work and industries like the tourism industry, banking, health care, IT, chemicals, and entertainment industries.
The term “modern slavery” was first used in the nineteenth century by Edward Said, a writer and intellectual famous for his anti-racist writings. He described modern slavery as the relationship between the exploiter and the exploited. According to Said, modern slavery is characterized by three main elements: the exploiter/ablisher, the power imbalance between the two, and the process of captivity. The author further explained that modern slavery exists when an individual or group of individuals does an act of involuntary servitude for economic or social purposes contrary to their will. Said further stated that modern slavery is a crime against humanity and thus, a form of crime.
In the United States, there are many documented cases of modern slavery. However, the real number of slaves in America has been greatly overestimated, especially in the rural South. As of the mid-nineteenth century, there are only two documented cases of modern slavery in the United States. These cases were the Civil War Slaves and the Emancipation Proclamation.
The condition of African American slaves in the mid-nineteenth century was terrible. Many died of malnutrition and diseases brought on by the harsh labor conditions, lack of medical attention, and dangerous working conditions. The majority of the slaves in the United States were either indentured servants or were hired laborers working for well-known cotton mills in the southern United States. There was a great deal of violence against African Americans in the Jim Crow period, including widespread slave burning and systematic lynching. Throughout the entire nation, there was a great upsurge in the brutal practice of white slavery in the years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Slavery was defined by the master as a system of control over the lives of others. For instance, in the West Indies, plantations were usually run by a few families, each one employing a slaughterer, who was responsible for executing the work of the others. There are many documented accounts of the abuses that the slaves went through at the hands of their slaughterers. Thus, when the institution of slavery became obsolete in the mid-nineteenth century, so did most of the legal definitions of it, including its relation to modern slavery.
Slavery was not only based on physical power. It also rested upon the control of mind and will. In fact, the master’s power over his slave was often based on his ability to exert will. In the Americas, the slave trade was a key source of revenue for the upper classes, and there were an estimated five million people locked up in prison during the Jim Crow era. The vast majority of those slaves were kept as wage workers, forced to perform tasks such as hard labor in the construction of railroads and in the armed forces.
Slaves were considered property in the eyes of law until they were sold as commodities. When that happened, they lost most of their protections under common law. Power, therefore, transferred to the master when he brought the whip into his life. Slaves could no longer assert their will against their masters unless they were beaten to death. The law itself began to erode the power of the master’s hand. Thus, even after the institution of slavery, when there appeared to be an end to an ongoing conflict, the power of the master was still apparent.
Slavery in the United States has a long history that continues today. It is an ugly part of our history that must be revealed. However, I do think that as a society we have the responsibility to shine a light on this dark period in American history and to call to our conscience when we see its menace. Please consider all this.