- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
Race has always played a role in labeling some people as worthy and others as undeserving of legal protections and access to justice. This has been the case whether the person in question is an alleged perpetrator of harm or an alleged victim. Collective thinking of this kind ultimately confers or takes away rights based on perceived value. And when it comes to crimes traditionally thought of as violations against women and girls, race-based perceptions can decide who is or is not deemed a victim of sexual abuse.
Judgments about sexuality, racial and gender bias, and engagement in outlaw behavior combine to create visceral and passionate reactions among observers of social and sexual norms. Examining these reactions and then parsing out who among us gets credit for having sexual autonomy and whose genuine exploitation deserves a remedy or other support can be tricky work.
Historically, much of the emphasis around sexual violence in the U.S. stemmed from the privileges and special status afforded to white (European American) women as virtuous persons whose chastity must remain unsullied, while women of color were deemed sexually available, and often docile and ready to serve. The development of a panic around the “white slave trade”, in which white women were somehow allegedly induced into immoral activities of a sexual nature, eventually morphed into a movement against prostitution. The cultural concern around the chastity and safety of white women continues to express itself in modern times through the ongoing media and cultural fascination with young white women who go missing (most notorious of which is the Natalee Holloway case), an obsession that has fueled numerous television shows and cable channels.
This level of ongoing cultural investment has raised serious questions about the commitment of U.S. civil society to the safety and protection of all women, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. For years, Asian American and immigrants rights activists worked to bring attention to issues of exploitation among domestic workers and women in servile marriages, two areas in which trafficking in persons can flourish. There is a perception among some advocates that policymakers and media did not pay attention to these concerns until it became clear that women who were Eastern European immigrants were suffering similar levels of abuse. These perceptions fit into the existing concern that the experiences of all women in abusive situations are not valued in the same way—with a valuation often tied to the racial background of the woman who may have experienced abuse.
Awareness and examination of the role of race with respect to women and girls who have experienced sexual abuse is a crucial endeavor. The feminist movement over the last twenty or so years has struggled in myriad ways with issues of race (among other issues) and the way women of color do or do not feel inspired or engaged to identify with traditional feminist concerns. The discussion has forced an analysis of privileges and divides among women and the consequences that flow from such separations.
In the realm of trafficking in persons, these concerns around whose exploitation is considered urgent and worthy of attention have been important in that they push the anti-trafficking movement to examine unconscious biases and assumptions, including the recognition that men are often victimized in trafficking situations.
However, in the last few years, a new divide is being created in the discourse on trafficking in persons. Valid and highly relevant concerns around race have now morphed into an ugly “us v. them” discussion of another sort in the perennial war over resources. In a new twist, this debate does not focus on race as the relevant factor—instead, immigration status is the new wedge. There is now a palpable and bizarre divide being fomented, where advocates are divided between those concerned about trafficked persons who are U.S. citizens and those concerned about immigrants.
There is now active discussion around the issue of who, among victims of trafficking into the sex sector, gets arrested for prostitution and who gets treated as an actual crime victim who is offered services. This conversation is ridiculous, and moves the anti-trafficking movement nowhere. The reality is, for anyone working in the sex sector, whether that person is being coerced or has made a decision to do this work, and whether the person is an immigrant or a citizen, that person is at grave risk of being arrested. More than once.
According to a report by the Sex Workers Project that interviewed immigrant women who had been trafficked:
Sixty percent, or 9 of the 15 women, had been arrested in local police raids. The number of arrests by local police experienced by individual women ranged from one to ten. None had been identified as trafficked by local law enforcement following a raid, despite the fact that 7 of these 9 women self-identified as trafficked. Only 1 had been asked whether she was coerced into sex work following arrest by local law enforcement.
Another aspect of this divisive conversation involves funding for and provision of services. The federal anti-trafficking law created services and protections for trafficked persons meant to address the complete lack of support for immigrants. However, the conversation rarely notes that the most crucial protection offered is access to legal immigration status and services that citizens can often access. In fact, there is a dire need for more case management, legal services, and safe housing for all trafficked persons, regardless of their immigration status or background. The divide around immigration also fails to address the needs of men, boys, or transgender persons who experience trafficking.
The most promising solution is to create a united front in which a bigger chunk of money is directed to people who experience coercive situations, rather than fighting over a bigger slice of a small fund that is not nearly adequate to meet the needs of all people who become trafficked.