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E. Benjamin Skinner Headshot

Slavery Is No Relic

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Recently, a friend told me that Barack Obama was giving a major speech addressing slavery. But unlike most of the two million others that watched it on YouTube, what drew me was not the promise of a mature discussion of race or even the spectacle of a man throwing his friend under the bus. I watched with the hope that the senator might call on the nation to get past its "original sin," as he rightly called slavery, by working against its modern incarnation. What I heard was a soaring and intelligent plea for racial reconciliation. As usual, however, the discussion of slavery was stalled in the past.

"Words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage," Obama said. He was speaking of his wife's nineteenth-century forbearers.

But he might have been speaking about a young, mentally-handicapped woman that was offered to me in trade for a used car in a brothel in Bucharest. In an attempt to make her sellable, her pimp had put makeup on her face, but when he presented her to me, the terrified woman was crying so hard that it had smeared. Her right arm bore angry, red slashes where apparently she had tried to escape the daily rape the only way she knew how.

Or he could have been referring to a third-generation quarry slave that I got to know in northern India. A serial-killing contractor regularly beat the man, and forced his entire family to work in a quarry for no pay beyond upkeep.

Or he might have been referring to our failed collective promise to a nine-year-old Haitian girl, whom a trafficker offered to me for $50 on the street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Or he might have been speaking about another Haitian girl, whom I met as a twenty-year-old survivor. She had been held as a domestic slave and sex slave for three years starting at age nine. The place of her bondage was a $351,000 household in suburban Miami, amidst what Senator Obama called "a land of big dreamers and big hopes."

For them, the Constitution that meant so little to Michelle Obama's forebearers means even less. For them, the three hundred international treaties banning slavery and the slave trade mean nothing at all.

There are more slaves today than at any point in human history. United Nations estimates begin at 12 million and range up to 27 million real slaves, worldwide. Yet leaders like Obama rarely mention their plight, because it doesn't register on the average American's radar, because slavery is everywhere illegal, because it is hidden behind the fraud of traffickers, masters and corrupt government officials. Real slaves -- those forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence -- are everywhere and nowhere.

In 2003, I set out to find slaves and their captors for my book, A Crime So Monstrous. Whenever I visited a new country, my first challenge was to find a single slave. After ingratiating myself to the right people, often shady characters, I went through the looking glass. Then the slaves were everywhere. In the end, I infiltrated trafficking networks and slave sales on five continents.

I found that slavery today is no less monstrous than it was 150 years ago. A pimp in Istanbul bargained with me for the lives of three young Eastern European women as if he were selling second-hand iPods.

In Moldova, I found villages essentially drained of young women by traffickers. A few made it back, only to face ostracism. Most never returned. One who did survive tearfully recounted how she had been tricked into prostitution in Turkey, violently raped, sold several times, only to be "rescued" by Turkish police, thrown into prison, repatriated, and trafficked again.

A mother living on the Indian border with Nepal broke down in tears as she described the pain of giving her son to a trafficker in order to save him from starvation, only to have him disappear into bondage, along with thousands of other children in India's carpet belt. I found the slave trader that had sold her son to a loom owner and I brought him to her. In a belated act of contrition, he too wept and pled for the mother's forgiveness.

When that is the reality of our world today, we may out of instinct turn away, preferring only to think of slavery at a distance, as a sepia-toned, historic relic, invoked to buttress the political argument of Senator Obama.

But slavery is no relic. And future generations will judge us harshly if we act as if it is. This Wednesday, Florida became the sixth state to formally apologize for its history of slavery, joining North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. It was an important act of reconciliation. But for those, like the girl enslaved in that suburban Miami house, apologizing for the past does nothing to alleviate the bondage of the present.

To date, none of the presidential candidates has truly "owned" the issue of modern-day abolition. Senator Clinton comes closest. She met survivors of sex slavery in Southeast Asia during her husband's presidency, and spoke out numerous times against the crime while in the Senate. Senator McCain has been thoughtful on modern-day slavery and some of his closest advisors have strong antislavery track records.

Ironically, the candidate with the weakest demonstrated record on modern-day slavery is Senator Obama. Though last year he co-sponsored a resolution supporting the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness, such an effort hardly constitutes ownership of the issue.

Senator Obama has inspired millions of Americans with his message of hope. My hope, and the hope of other abolitionists, is that as president he will finally fulfill our collective pledge to bury slavery once and for all.

E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (Free Press, 2008)