Racism and Human Trafficking

Protests against police violence and the disproportionate killings of Native and Black individuals by police have sparked much-needed conversations around racism and discrimination. As many of us protest, learn new things, undo harmful practices, and re-evaluate policies, understanding how systemic racism has impacted human trafficking can help inform better practices, increase empathy, and remind us that there are far-reaching consequences to excluding anyone in our community. 

(The term “people of color” is used below when statements apply to multiple racial/ethnic groups, including communities in or descending from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, which all faced European colonialism.) 


Human trafficking is a modern day manifestation of historic slavery. While the enslavement of people based on or justified by race largely ended worldwide with the international abolitionist movements of the 19th century, it is still true today that people of color are disproportionately enslaved/trafficked. Human trafficking is a long term continuation of colonialist greed that used racism to justify the violence and exploitation of people of color. Globally, this manifests in large concentrations in eastern Asia and Middle Africa, and in the U.S., in the larger racial minority groups of a given area (usually Latinx or Black, depending on the local demographics). 

"Human trafficking is a long term continuation of colonialist greed that used racism to justify the violence and exploitation of people of color."

The disproportionate impact of human trafficking on people of color is largely a result of colonialism, continued economic exclusion, policies that reinforce existing wealth inequality, and intentional construction of anti-slavery laws to allow for legal forms of forced labor. In the U.S., settlers targeted some Native communities and many captive Africans for forced labor, and later, would write exceptions to the anti-slavery law passed in the 13th Amendment that targeted Black individuals.

The exact intersection of race and human trafficking is unknown, and difficult to quantify, as current trafficking statistics are based only on cases that are successfully identified, and as national trends do not usually indicate intersection with racial demographics, which change so greatly based on the local area. We do know that homeless individuals are much more likely to be trafficked, and that housing insecurity disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrant communities, and Black folx.

We also know that traffickers target marginalized communities. This means that any social group that experiences social, civic, and/or economic exclusion will be more at risk of human trafficking. Historic discrimination against Black communities in the U.S. contributes to the human trafficking risks Black individuals face. In the U.S., after 340 years of systematic slavery, formerly enslaved persons entered into free society with limited education, limited savings or property ownership, severe social judgment and professional exclusion, laws and police forces predisposed to their arrest for minor offenses, no right to vote, and many other forms of marginalization. In the 150 years that followed, laws were intentionally written to protect the status quo, resist the redistribution of wealth, and exclude people of color from full economic and social freedoms. 

Historic discrimination against Black communities in the U.S. contributes to the human trafficking risks Black individuals face.

Tomorrow, if we decided to strip all savings, property, rights to education and voting from all people with glasses; and treat all people who wore glasses as though they were more suspicous of criminal activity, as if glasses were unprofessional to have in the workplace, as if any higher education they did have was an aberration; if we wrote environmental, corporate, and local policies that forced them into housing insecurity and limited their access to elementary education and health insurance; if doctors suddenly treated people with glasses as though they were more likely to complain and less likely to be sick; if police were more likely to kill people with glasses, more likely to arrest them for minor crimes, more likely to pull them over and handcuff them without reason; if we as a society decided to socially, civically, and economically exclude people with glasses, then people with glasses would become more at risk for human trafficking. They would be more likely to be homeless, more likely to meet and speak with a trafficker, more likely to be targeted, groomed, and conned by a trafficker; they would be more likely to be in desperate economic situations that traffickers look for and capitalize on; they would be more likely to fear police and less likely to seek help from community members and law enforcement. People with glasses are not inherently more at risk for human trafficking, but if we decided to make it so, we could. 

Nothing in “being at higher risk for trafficking” is inherent. Marginalization is learned, constructed, supported, and self-reinforcing. Of course, glasses are an insufficient example; the things our society has decided to discriminate on are not as easily removed as glasses. Racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, ableism - all make targeted communities more at risk of human trafficking. When you engage in racist ideologies, support racist systems, or idly watch racism in action, you contribute to human trafficking in your community.

"Nothing in “being at higher risk for trafficking” is inherent."

Fear of police complicates trafficking scenarios. Police brutality makes victims more likely to return to their traffickers. We see this largely in Black or immigrant communities. Traffickers know that this fear exists and they capitalize on it; often part of the grooming process includes a trafficker’s prediction that the victim will be treated poorly by law enforcement. Unfortunately, this is often the case. Sex trafficking victims are more likely to be arrested by police than rescued by them. Often, victims have reported instances of sexual harassments and verbal abuse by police, confirming their trafficker’s manipulative suggestions that the trafficker is the only person who will be there to take care of them. 

So much more research is needed around human trafficking, especially in the practices best suited to combat it. What we can say certainly is that support and protections for communities that have faced historic discrimination is essential to decreasing traffickers’ capacity to practice exploitation without consequence. 

For those interested in further education around these topics, additional resources are listed below.

  • For information on how the 13th Amendment was constructed to prolong legal forced labor and target Black communities, the documentary 13th is available on Netflix. 

  • "The Race Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons - Especially Women and Children", published by the United Nations Department of Public Information as part of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

  • "The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking", written by Cheryl Nelson-Butler and published in the UCLA Law Review. 

  • "Globalization as a Racial Project: Implications for Human Trafficking", written by Sarah Hupp Williamson and published the Journal of International Women's Studies

  • "Human Trafficking and Sex Industry: Does Ethnicity and Race Matter?", written by Natividad Gutiérrez Chong and published in the Journal of Intercultural Studies

  • "Failing victims? Challenges of the police response to human trafficking", written by Amy Farrell, Meredith Dank, Ieke de Vries, Matthew Kafafian, Andrea Hughes, and Sarah Lockwood and published by Criminology and Public Policy