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Jamaal Bell

Jamaal Bell

Posted: May 10, 2010 08:57 AM

Race and Human Trafficking in the U.S.: Unclear but Undeniable

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I watch and listen to the advocacy of human trafficking at rallies, on web sites, in government reports and NGO reports. The research and statistics on human trafficking in America are ambiguous, especially in relation to race and ethnicity. We need to explicitly recognize the connections between trafficking, poverty, migration, gender, racism and racial discrimination to adequately battle and destroy human trafficking in the U.S.

Trafficking persons is inherently discriminatory. Since an overwhelming majority of trafficked persons are women, trafficking in most circles is usually considered a gender issue, especially in the United States (majority of trafficking in the U.S. is sex trafficking). In the U.S., most state human trafficking laws explicitly and directly address sexual exploitation, ignoring or vaguely covering other types of trafficking (myths of trafficking).

However, a link that is rarely discussed in open forums about human trafficking is racial discrimination. A question that I don't hear enough is, "Does race and ethnicity contribute to the likelihood of people becoming victims of trafficking?" I say, "Yes." Furthermore, I believe that not only does race and ethnicity constitute a risk factor for trafficking, it may also determine the treatment those victims' experience.

The Polaris Project, who does outstanding work in combating human trafficking, stated the majority of trafficked persons come from vulnerable populations, including undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, oppressed or marginalized groups, and the poor; specifically because they are easiest to recruit and control. In the U.S., statistically speaking, people of color more than fit this criterion.

Available Statistics by Race

A large majority of trafficked persons in the U.S. for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation are people of color. Domestically, 50 percent of trafficked victims are children and an overwhelmingly are girls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Most foreign nationals are women, children and men from Mexico and East Asia, as well as from South Asia, Central America, Africa, and Europe, about 17,500 each year, according to statistics compiled by Polaris Project and 2009 TIP report.

Seventy-seven percent of victims in alleged human trafficking incidents reported in the U.S. were people of color, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report. An example of BJS's ambiguity is that 747 out of 1,442 reported incidents recorded no racial or ethnic origin.

Racism is deeply embedded in human trafficking and must be racially inclusive and explicitly included in its literature, statistics and advocacy. To combat this modern-day slavery, the trafficking cycle should recognize explicitly the connections between trafficking, migration, poverty, racism, gender and racial discrimination.

We need to urge and support our NGOs, national and state governments to adequately report trafficking incidents. It is important to know the origin of the victims and the suspected traffickers, race and ethnic backgrounds to better understand the vulnerabilities and how traffickers exploit opportunities.

I am advocating that we remove and uncover the ambiguity of the characteristics of trafficked persons and the traffickers and be explicit about who they are and what populations in America are most affected so we can make specific and measurable progress. The notion that anyone can be a victim of human trafficking is true, however, the fact that the majority of victims are people of color should not be undermined or understated.

Recent human trafficking reports in the US:


Child Sex Trafficking in Atlanta from Erin Levin on Vimeo.

Woman rescued after investigators discover human trafficking operation in Greensboro; five arrested | The Times News

Photo by Kay Chernush via US State Department

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