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Racism and Human Trafficking

Why people of color continue to be vulnerable.

Key points

  • Of all juvenile detention prostitution arrests, 57.5 percent were Black children, and 40 percent of sex trafficking victims were Black women.
  • The disparity of race and human trafficking mirrors current racism and is a vestige of colonial exploitation and historical slavery.
  • We should avoid performative actions that seemingly address racism but do not work toward structural or institutional change.

As I commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and thought about racial justice, I realize that one area we don’t talk enough about is the racialized reality of human trafficking.

According to the Congressional Black Caucus, 57.5 percent of all juvenile detention prostitution arrests were of Black children, and 40 percent of sex trafficking victims identified as Black women. Latinx women are the largest vulnerable group in the United States for labor trafficking; the Department of Justice estimates that up to 60 percent of labor trafficking victims are Latinx women. In the agriculture industry, 76 percent of likely victims were from Mexico. Globally, more than half of trafficked persons are from Asia.

Racism Is a Root Cause of Human Trafficking

The disparity of race in human trafficking mirrors not only current racism overall but is a vestige of colonial exploitation and historical slavery. Cheryl Butler traces the “racial roots of human trafficking” by highlighting the African slave trade, the burgeoning myths of hypersexualized Black women, and stereotypes that slaves were biologically different and so could endure hard labor.

Parallel to this is the exoticism and othering placed on Asian women–first through the colonization of places like the Philippines and Thailand (by Spain and France, respectively) and then by militarization through wars like the Vietnam War, which institutionalized red-light districts. Butler stated, “Racial fetishes drive the supply of, and demand for, commercial sex with people of color.” This, in turn, increases vulnerability to sex trafficking.

Throughout the world, this pattern of colonial conquest included the commodification, slavery, and objectification of indigenous communities as a whole. For women, this took the form of categorizing them as sexual deviants, which then led to a need to control and abuse since this deviance made “them” subhuman.

Similarly, men were made to seem either overly effeminate or almost animalistic instead of human, supporting methods of treatments slavers and now, traffickers use such as inhumane work conditions, deprivation, and physical abuse. For instance, in the Philippines, it was Spanish Colonial practice for landowners to accept “domestic help” as payment on debts and the structure of feudalism that formed the backbone of agriculture. Many of these relationships morphed but maintained the same functions of oppression, commodification, and exploitation.

The Persistence of Racism

Ignoring the racial roots of human trafficking is dangerous. It blames victims for their own circumstances in a kind of “they should have known better” perspective, dismissing root causes and systemic barriers that make populations vulnerable in the first place. For instance, in these situations, trafficking in the forms of labor exploitation or survival sex and settings such as massage parlors or subcontracted “businesses” are misunderstood. It creates blinders about how to prevent trafficking and slavery. Worse still, communities of color continue to be marginalized in the overall anti-trafficking movement.

One woman of color who had been working in the anti-trafficking movement was told by a local (anti-trafficking) task force leader that it would be “difficult” for her to be a leader because she “too closely resembled the victims they were serving.” This false and racist view, unfortunately, persists rather than being an isolated incident. Blatant and microaggressive behavior must be addressed and also prevented. But how?

Creating Change

The first step is to raise awareness. This occurs through better data collection and research to understand what is happening. For example, having precise demographics will point out where the greatest needs are for services and interventions. It is also important to include issues of race, racism, and colonialism in current efforts of training and prevention programs. Often, this perspective is treated as a descriptor rather than a key factor to be addressed.

A caveat is that all of this should be done without further fetishizing or stereotyping ethnic and racial populations. The tendency to overgeneralize is a drawback when trying to gloss over complex issues. Instead, time to unravel and reveal root causes and intergenerational traumas must be built into training and awareness programs. Similarly, service providers and law enforcement training should be sensitive to unconscious and implicit bias.

Performative actions that seemingly address racism but do not work toward structural or institutional change should be avoided. Many of these actions are literally just for show, usually to increase social capital rather than real efforts to initiate change.

Performative actions are sometimes worse than doing nothing at all because they represent a façade of change rather than engagement in difficult, uncomfortable, sometimes contentious discourse and action.

As with other areas where racism permeates, behaviors and norms will not shift with performative actions.

Another way to address racism and trafficking is to be more survivor and community-centric. The Global Fund to End Slavery (GFEMS) exemplifies this last point with their renewed commitment to being more survivor-centered through a formal partnership with the National Survivor Network.

The Executive Director of GFEMS, Sophie Otiende, shared that the organization made the decision to shift its core operations from Washington, DC, to Nairobi to be “More present in and shift power to regions most affected by modern slavery.” Their actions and the actions of other organizations aim to create concrete, systemic change. These are strong examples of what it means to “decolonize.”

As we continue the fight for racial and social justice, we have to do so everywhere. Sadly, anyone can become a victim of human trafficking and slavery but the truth is that people of color, especially women and children, continue to be the most vulnerable and endangered. Until this is recognized and focused on, change cannot happen. But change has to happen, because lives depend on it.


Butler, C. N. (2015). The racial roots of human trafficking. UCLA L. Rev., 62, 1464.

Muller-Tabanera, C., & Huang, B. (2021). Modern-Day Comfort Stations: Human Trafficking in the US Illicit Massage Industry. In The Historical Roots of Human Trafficking (pp. 65-83). Springer, Cham.

Enrile, A. (Ed.). (2017). Ending Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery: Freedom's Journey. SAGE Publications.