Race and Human Trafficking

By: Shelly Feldman, Associate Editor, Vol. 27

One of the most pressing global challenges is human trafficking. Human trafficking is defined as “a crime whereby traffickers exploit and profit at the expense of adults and children by compelling them to perform labor or commercial sex.”[i] Former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo described human trafficking as “the new slave trade” at a conference in Lagos at the beginning of the century.[ii] Today, millions around the world are affected by human trafficking.[iii] Perpetrators deceive and exploit victims, trafficking them for various purposes including sexual exploitation, forced labor, and domestic servitude for profit.[iv] Victims are trafficked within their own countries, to bordering countries, and across continents.[v]

(An image of a blue heart, representing the blue heart campaign, which is a “global awareness-raising initiative”[i] to combat human trafficking.)

[i] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, The Blue Heart Campaign, https://www.unodc.org/blueheart/.
(An image of a young girl frowning with the words “NOT FOR SALE” over her face.)

Anybody can be a trafficking victim,[vii] though research shows a link between race and trafficking.[viii] As former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said, “[t]rafficking is inherently discriminatory.”[ix] Race is a risk factor for both being trafficked and how victims are treated throughout their experience, including in their countries of destination.[x] Though data on race is not definitive due to the lack of recorded race or ethnicity for reported incidents,[xi] the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University reports that the majority of trafficking victims – about 77% – in the United States are people of color.[xii] Rights4Girls, a non-profit and advocacy organization whose mission is to improve the lives of young girls,[xiii] reports that both sex trade survivors and child sex trafficking survivors in the United States are disproportionately women and girls of color.[xiv] Data from the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reveals that trafficking victims and survivors (particularly labor trafficking victims and survivors) are disproportionately Latinx.[xv]

Data on the link between race and trafficking in specific jurisdictions is clearer. For example, in Louisiana, Black girls make up nearly 50% of the trafficking victims in the state but only 19% of the total population.[xvi] In South Dakota, Native American women make up 40% of sex trafficking victims but only 8% of the total population.[xvii] And in Cook County, Illinois, Black women made up 66% of sex trafficking victims between 2012 and 2016[xviii] yet are only 13% of the Cook County population.[xix]

(An image of pairs of racially diverse hands in the air with broken handcuffs on them, representing the anti-trafficking movement’s goals. The hands represent victims of trafficking, as well as the demographic range of trafficking victims.)

Adults and children of color are more likely to be trafficked for many reasons. Traffickers tend to target economically and politically vulnerable populations, which are often racial minorities.[xx] Discriminatory policies and practices have deprived communities and individuals of color from economic opportunities, preventing them from building generational wealth and achieving and maintaining financial stability.[xxi]  Such policies and practices include redlining, lending discrimination, and restricted entry into higher education institutions as well as higher-paying jobs with worker protections.[xxii] For sex trafficking specifically, Cheryl Nelson Butler writes that the “racialized sexual exploitation of people of color that developed during slavery and colonization” explains the disproportionate number of women and girls of color who are trafficking victims today.[xxiii] Black children, as well as other children of color, are more likely than white children to be victims of forms of sex trafficking.[xxiv] Minority youth are often not seen as victims or children due to hyper-sexualized and rebellious stereotypes about them.[xxv] The media fails to portray minority youth victims and survivors of trafficking as individuals requiring resources and support, instead objectifying them through images, music, and other mediums of popular culture.[xxvi] American hostility toward nonwhite immigrants, evidenced by anti-immigrant rhetoric[xvii] and restrictive immigration laws,[xviiii] also exacerbates the trafficking of immigrants.[xxix] For many, it is expected that low-wage immigrant workers’ labor is exploited.[xxx] Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable to trafficking.[xxxi] These victims are often unwilling to seek help or report abuse out of fear of deportation and due to a lack of awareness of legal rights, among other reasons.[xxxii] Finally, histories and patterns of state-sponsored fracturing of families and communities of color also leave adults and children of color vulnerable to trafficking.[xxxiii] Black individuals are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, in foster care, and in homeless shelters, institutions that perpetuate isolation and vulnerability traffickers can then target.[xxxiv] Destruction of indigenous families and communities, through colonization and forced assimilation, has also led to a disproportionate representation of Native American children in the child welfare system,[xxxv] another institution perpetuating isolation and vulnerability.

To be most effective, the anti-trafficking movement, including governments, the media, and advocates, must understand and acknowledge the link between race and trafficking. Recognizing that the majority of trafficking victims in the United States and around the world are people of color will help eradicate trafficking by producing better data about who is likely to be a victim, the vulnerability of victims, and ways in which victims are exploited.[xxxvi] Failing to recognize the racial disparities of trafficking deprives trafficking victims and survivors of color support, resources, and justice when holding perpetrators accountable.[xxxvii] Doing so may perpetuate racial stereotypes and myths leading to the mistreatment of minority youth victims and survivors of trafficking that continue today[xxxviii] or lead to legislation that fails to recognize and protect the full demographic range of trafficking victims and survivors.[xxxix]

(An image that says “Fighting Racism is Fighting Human Trafficking.”)

Both the Obama and Biden administrations publicly acknowledged the role race plays in trafficking – steps in the right direction for the anti-trafficking movement.[xl] In a press release last month, the Biden Administration released its new National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and emphasized its commitment to ending systemic injustices that leave individuals at a higher likelihood of being trafficked.[xli] Dismantling systems of power that exacerbate racial disparities in trafficking and changing how trafficking victims and survivors are publicly addressed and discussed in the media will not only decrease the trafficking of adults and children of color and racial minorities, but all trafficking victims at large.[xlii] Going forward, it remains critical the anti-trafficking movement greatly involve communities harmed by both racism and trafficking to most effectively provide support and resources for victims and survivors and hold traffickers accountable.[xliii]

[i] U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Rep., 24 (2021).

[ii] World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, The Race Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons – Especially Women and Children (March 2001).

[iii] U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Human trafficking: people for sale, https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/human-trafficking.html.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vii] Austyn McAnarney, The Link Between Race & Human Trafficking, Dressember,  https://www.dressember.org/blog/raceandtrafficking-fd9cb.

[viii]  Id.

[ix] The Race Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons – Especially Women and Children, supra note ii.

[x] Id.

[xi] Racial Disparities, Covid-19, and Human Trafficking, Polaris Project,https://polarisproject.org/blog/2020/07/racial-disparities-covid-19-and-human-trafficking/

[xii] Jamaal Bell, Race and Human Trafficking in the U.S.: Unclear but Undeniable, Kirwan Inst. for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (Jan. 11, 2001),  https://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/article/race-and-human-trafficking-us-unclear-undeniable.

[xiii] See What we Do, Rights4Girls, https://rights4girls.org/what-we-do/.

[xiv] Racial & Gender Disparities in the Sex Trade, Rights4Girls, https://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2018/09/Racial-Justice-fact-sheet-Sept-2018-Final.pdf.

[xv] Racial Disparities, Covid-19, and Human Trafficking, supra note xi; The Latino Face of Human Trafficking and Exploitation in the United States, Polaris Project (Apr. 24, 2020), https://polarisproject.org/resources/the-latino-face-of-human-trafficking-and-exploitation-in-the-united-states/.

[xvi] Racial Disparities, Covid-19, and Human Trafficking, supra note xi.

[xvii] Racial & Gender Disparities in the Sex Trade, supra note xiv.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] U.S. Census Bureau, Cook County, Illinois (2021).

[xx] Trafficking in Persons Rep., supra note i at 38–39.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Cheryl Nelson Butler, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking, UCLA L. Rev. 1464, 1481 (2015).

[xxiv] See id. at 1483–87.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Rose Spero, Human Trafficking: Immigrant Victims Afraid to Report Traffickers, Ayuda (Jan. 8, 2020), https://www.ayuda.com/human-trafficking-immigrant-victims-afraid-to-report-traffickers/.

[xxviii] See Why Does the U.S. Need Immigration Reform?, Open Soc. Founds. (May 2019), https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/why-does-us-need-immigration-reform

[xxix] Nelson Butler, supra note xxiii at 1483–84.

[xxx] See Melynda H. Barnhart, Sex and Slavery: An Analysis of Three Models of State Human Trafficking Legislation, William & Mary J. W. L. 83, 90 (2009).

[xxxi] See Nelson Butler, supra note xxiii at 1483–84.

[xxxii] Spero, supra note xxvii.

[xxxiii] See Trafficking in Persons Rep., supra note i at 38–39.

[xxxiv] See id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] See Bell, supra note xii.

[xxxvii] See Nelson Butler, supra note xxiii at 1493.

[xxxviii] Id. at 1496–97.

[xxxix] See id. at 1493.

[xl] Id. at 1505–06; Press Release, The White House, FACT SHEET: The National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking (NAP) (Dec. 3, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/03/fact-sheet-the-national-action-plan-to-combat-human-trafficking-nap/.

[xli] FACT SHEET: The National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking (NAP), supra note xxxvi.

[xlii] Id.; U.S. Dep’t of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Acknowledging Historical and Ongoing Harm: The Connections between Systemic Racism and Human Trafficking (June 2021), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Acknowledging-Historical-and-Ongoing-Harm_LOW.pdf.

[xliiii] See Acknowledging Historical and Ongoing Harm: The Connections between Systemic Racism and Human Trafficking, supra note xxxviii.