Kristof: Slavery isn't a thing of the past

  • This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." From "12 Years a Slave" to "The Butler" to "Fruitvale Station," 2013 has been a banner year for movies directed by black filmmakers. Like seldom before, African American stories are being told on the big screen without white protagonists. (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk)

The movie "12 Years a Slave" is receiving rapturous reviews for depicting the antebellum South less as a gauzy land of elegant plantations than as the raw backdrop of monstrous brutality.

It's terrific that, in the 21st century, we can squarely face 19th-century slavery. But let's also acknowledge the modern versions of slavery in the world around us — and, yes, right here at home.

The United States is home to about 60,000 people who can fairly be called modern versions of slaves, according to a new Global Slavery Index released last month by the Walk Free Foundation, which fights human trafficking. These modern slaves aren't sold in chains in public auctions, so it's not exactly the same as 19th-century slavery. Those counted today include illegal immigrants forced to work without pay under threat of violence and teenage girls coerced to sell sex and hand all the money to their pimps.

There are, of course, many more ambiguities today than in the 1850s about how to count slaves, but the slavery index finds almost 30 million people enduring modern slavery. More are in India than in any other country, and in some countries, such as Mauritania, children are still born into slavery.

Who are these modern American slaves?

One survivor I met last month in New Orleans, Clemmie Greenlee, had her life taken over by a pimp at age 12. She said she spent years having sex with up to 50 men a day. On average, she was beaten 10 times a month, for not meeting her daily quota or other offenses.

Why didn't she run away? Because, she says, of a mix of fear, Stockholm syndrome, emotional manipulation by pimps, hopelessness fueled by drug addiction and distrust of the authorities.

Eventually, Greenlee was able to escape that life, and she now runs a residential program called Eden House to help other women start over. An African-American, she says that what trafficked women endure is absolutely an echo of what her ancestors endured on plantations.

"If you're putting a whip on my back because I'm not picking enough cotton, or if you're beating me because I'm not earning my quota, it's the same thing," she said. "It's slavery."

Slavery isn't as formal or as widespread in the United States today as it was in the 1850s, of course, but it's still easy to find. Go to backpage.com, the leading website for prostitution advertising, and search for your hometown. Some of the women selling sex there are adults voluntarily in the business, but many are women or girls under the control of pimps who take every penny they earn, brand them with tattoos and beat them if they don't earn enough.

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