U.S. Senate Apologizes for Slavery

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This week, the United States Senate passed a resolution that apologizes for slavery. It’s pretty sad that it took well over one-hundred years to get to this point, but at least it’s something. It should be noted that Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both co-sponsored the resolution.

To be sure, a Senate resolution can’t under the reality of dehumanization and oppression–or the legacy of slavery’s contemporary manifestations–a fact that the Senate recognizes:

Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African- Americans will help bind the wounds of the Nation that are rooted in slavery and can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help the people of the United States understand the past and honor the history of all people of the United States;

The Senate resolution apologizes for both slavery and Jim Crow:

Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That the sense of the Congress is the following:

(1) APOLOGY FOR THE ENSLAVEMENT AND SEGREGATION OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS.

The Congress–

(A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws;

(B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws; and

(C) expresses its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.

Of course, the kicker:

(2) DISCLAIMER.–Nothing in this resolution–

(A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or

(B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

It’s disappointing that the resolution excludes the prospect of reparations, but that is likely to be an ongoing battle that needs to be waged by progressives and radicals.

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Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy

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John Bowe’s Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy is an examination of slave labor in the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bowe asserts that slavery is very much alive in the United States. The cases profiled in the book are not unique incidents themselves, but rather show how slavery can exist in diverse ways in the contemporary global economy, despite the fact that it is rarely noticed.

The book focuses on three separate cases of slavery: the enslavement of immigrant laborers in Immokalee, Florida, temporary workers in Tulsa who came from India and were locked up at their factory, and Chinese garment workers in the United States territory of Saipan who are paid little and are horribly treated. Bowe describes the day-to-day lives of people working in these diverse areas to draw out common themes of horrific working and living conditions coupled with direct or implied threats of violence or reprisal should the “employees” complain about their situation. He also explores the difficulties inherent in prosecuting these cases, difficulties that unfortunately often have as much to do with inadequate laws as they do a lack of investigative resources. Interestingly, all of the cases examined in the book have to do with immigration, examining how the enslavers are able to hold immigration status–or in some cases physical papers–over forced laborers. The slaves are often indebted to their employers who have assisted them in getting to the United States or its territories, but then are essentially powerless to stop their abuse because of this relationship. Of the chapters in the book, the one dealing with the immigrant workers in Immokalee is the most interesting and even inspiring, as it discusses how workers have been able to organize to challenge slavery. This challenging of slavery has included assistance in the prosecution of slavery cases, while being part of a larger effort to improve the treatment of farm workers in South Florida.

Unfortunately, throughout much of the book, Bowe’s narration gets in the way of the cases of slavery that he talks about–often deflecting attention from the very real labor abuses that he reports. Many readers will likely find themselves distracted by Bowe’s comments and his own feelings–skepticism about allegations of slavery, his difficulty in relating to his own employed “researchers” and what that says about “slavery,” comments that “greed and senseless aggression” can simply be “the nature of power” rather than “evil”–as he relates them throughout the book. Especially in the brief interlude chapters in which Bowe uses simplistic arguments and analysis to place contemporary slavery within its historical context, Bowe’s own psychological conflicts over the nature of slavery are annoying at best.

Despite Bowe’s narration, Nobodies does provide some useful discussion of contemporary slavery in the era of globalization. However, the utility of the book is limited in that so much of the focus is on Bowe’s process–how he went from place to place interviewing people and what he saw as he went there–that the information frequently gets lost. Moreover, it lacks an overall context from which readers can understand contemporary slavery and instead slavery seems to be something motivated by simple “greed” rather than something occurring within an overall global economic system. To his credit, Bowe does get to this context in the final section of the book, but the discussion is too brief and too simplistic.

John Bowe, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, (Random House, 2007).

Guestworker Programs “Close to Slavery”

A new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center of guestworker programs in the United States has concluded that the programs are essentially legalized forms of slavery or indentured servitude. The report, which examines existing guestworker programs, past programs such as the Bracero program, and the possibility of expanded guestworker programs as part of the current debate over immigration reform, concludes that if such programs are to exist they must be radically altered. The current guestworker programs, known as H-2 programs, allow employers to bring foreign workers into the United States, with around 121,000 workers brought in to the country in 2005. However, far from being treated as “guests,” these workers are “systematically abused and exploited” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The workers are not allowed even the most basic protection that exists in a competitive labor market–the ability to change jobs. Instead, guestworkers are bound to the employers that “import” them and complaints run the risk of deportation, blacklisting, or other forms of retaliation. What minimal legal protections that do exist are rarely enforced and without legal protections guestworkers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage temporary jobs, held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers that seize their documents, forced to live in deplorable conditions, and are denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries. Workers have no prospect of becoming citizens and are instead essentially function as disposable workers that must leave the United States once their visas expire.