Op-Ed by Ambassador Larry E. André: History of Slavery and its Vestiges in the United States

The 50 anniversary of Marches from Selma Photo 500Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 in our Declaration of Independence from Britain, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Jefferson’s philosophical commitment to human equality, unfortunately, did not extend to the slaves he owned.  Yet Jefferson knew that the issue of slavery threatened the national unity of our new-born nation.  The failure of Americans to end slavery at the birth of the nation led almost 100 years later to a bloody Civil War that nearly destroyed our national unity.

Following that terrible war, the American people adopted the 13thAmendment to our Constitution in 1865:   “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  While the thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution permanently abolished legal slavery in the United States, the vestiges of slavery remain 150 years later.  These vestiges can be seen in disparities in median household incomes, unemployment and other social, political and economic data showing that descendants of slaves, as a group, have not yet attained their rightful place in American society, when compared to Americans from other backgrounds.  We Americans, as a people, and our government as the elected representatives of the people, must continue to struggle to achieve our ideals of equality.  In my lifetime, dramatic progress has been achieved, but much remains to be done.

While slavery as a legal institution was abolished, illegal practices such as forced labor and domestic servitude continue to exist in the United States.  These crimes, considered aspects of “trafficking in persons,” are fought by our law enforcement and judicial authorities.   Trafficking in persons occurs when someone is compelled into performing labor or service by means of force, fraud, or coercion.  In the United States, traffickers are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to prison.  Sadly, each year, thousands of men, women, and children are exploited at the hands of human traffickers, both in their own countries and abroad.  According to a 2012 International Labor Organization estimate, there are more than 20 million human trafficking victims around the world. Nearly every country in the world is affected by trafficking in persons.  The United States publishes an annual assessment of human trafficking in every country, including our own (available online at http://go.usa.gov/NS9P).  Our 2014 report finds that “The United States is a source, transit, and destination for human trafficking of men, women, and children.”  The report goes on to list the steps our government and its civil society partners are taking to eradicate this shameful practice.

In combating trafficking in persons in our own country, the United States is striving to become “a more perfect union,” as is written in the preamble of our Constitution.  As an American who loves his country, I cannot accept that any of my fellow citizens suffer under a condition of such extreme dependency, which is beneath the dignity of any human being.  Some Americans argue about whether such practices as forced labor should be defined as “slavery,” or “virtual slavery,” or “human trafficking,” or some other term.  As for me, I care less about the appropriate term to use for such criminal practices as I do about the fact it is wrong and it must end.  Ending these exploitative practices in the United States requires the American government, civil society, media, religious leaders, political leaders and all Americans of good will to work together to identify and to free victims of human trafficking, to hold accountable human traffickers and those who profit from their crimes, and to reform societal attitudes, institutions and policies that prevent many descendants of American slaves from fully realizing their rights and opportunities as equal members of our society.  We urge all nations to join us in ensuring that every man, woman, and child in the world lives in freedom and dignity.

Larry André, Ambassador, United States Embassy, Nouakchott, Mauritania