The Roots of “Modern Day Slavery”: The Page Act and the Mann Act

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Lorelei Lee is a sex worker activist, writer, and 2020–2021 Justice Catalyst fellow doing organizing and advocacy with people in the sex trades in upstate New York and nationally, Lorelei is a cofounder of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition, a founding member of both the Upstate New York Sex Workers Coalition and Decrim Massachusetts, and a researcher with Hacking//Hustling.

Usage of the phrase “modern day slavery” to describe human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is widespread despite work by numerous scholars and activists to point out how such usage harms attempts to remedy both slavery and trafficking. In order to more clearly recognize the continuing harms of this usage, it is imperative that we know its history. This Article describes two origin points in American law, the 1875 Page Act and the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act, that can be understood as the precursors to contemporary usage of “modern day slavery” as well as to contemporary usage of criminal and immigration law to address trafficking. In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, claims of a “new slavery” that was depicted as “worse” than chattel slavery were used to create restrictive, racialized immigration laws and racialized federal policing of domestic movement that in fact exacerbated the harms of chattel slavery while also expanding the reach of anti-Asian stereotypes and solidifying white supremacy in the structure of U.S. government. This same impact continues with the use of “modern day slavery” language today. By examining the rhetoric used by activists and politicians in both 1875 and 1910, this Article illustrates how contemporary usage of “modern day slavery” upholds and furthers the white supremacist tropes and racist stereotypes created to justify immigration restriction in 1875 and federal criminalization of Black and immigrant men in 1910. Further, this Article shows how these white supremacist stereotypes were used immediately after the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and into the early 20th century toward the same ends that they are often used toward today in discussions of human trafficking. First, to claim that slavery is most importantly a harm to whiteness and that redressing the continuing impact of hundreds of years of enslavement of Africans and African Americans must be put aside in order to address the ostensibly more urgent impact of “modern day slavery” fashioned as a harm to white women. Second, to solidify U.S. imperialism and racial capitalism through anti-Asian stereotypes depicting Asian women as vulnerable and submissive and Asian people as the source of contagious illness.

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