Dismantling the Slave Trade Economy

By Mary Elizabeth Margolis
In a contributed piece for the New York Times, Maurie McInnis describes how the transatlantic slave trade built and shaped the American economy. She describes how the business of slavery was lucrative for not only slave traders themselves but for a great number of people who were involved in the network of exploitation:

“Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

“Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.”

Like the transatlantic slave trade, the modern business of human trafficking has many actors – from recruiters, to transporters, to document forgers, to money launderers – who are making exorbitant profits on the backs of slaves. Human trafficking is the fastest growing enterprise in the world, making criminals approximately $150 billion a year. At least 21 million men, women, and children are daily exploited through the human trafficking business. They work in fields, factories, restaurants, mines, and brothels. You may not always see them, but you have surely encountered them.

As she concludes her piece, McInnis describes the day of liberation, 150 years ago, when the Civil War had ended and the business of slavery came to a halt: “As Union troops filled the streets, as Lincoln toured the city, as the auction rooms fell silent, thousands rejoiced that they would never have to fear the slave market again.”

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, the United States should honor its past by working to eradicate the horrific business of slavery once and for all. American businesses, government leaders, and law enforcement must work together to develop and implement common sense policies to bankrupt slavery by increasing the risks and eliminating the opportunities for traffickers to profit. By developing ways to disrupt this horrific business enterprise, millions who are trapped in modern slavery may too live to rejoice in the streets as they see their own day of liberation.

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Published on April 3, 2015

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