Content Warning: This post is about historic and modern slavery in the US and discusses sexual assault, family separation, physical violence, and more.
Every few months I see someone comparing their crappy job to slavery. Slavery has existed in various forms throughout the world and history, but in an American context slavery means antebellum race based chattel slavery. It’s never yet been an African American I’ve seen make this claim, never a descendant of that slavery. I have seen them equate for-profit prisons run as workhouses with slavery, and that comparison fits much better.
Historical US slavery was lifelong, generational, and filled with every cruelty and abuse imaginable. Physical and sexual assault were the norm. Enslaved mothers had their children stolen and sold away from them, had their babies ripped away so they could wetnurse white babies instead. Slaves were not allowed to marry and were sometimes forced into sex with each other for “breeding” experiments.
It was not only back breaking labor and open wounds from cracking whips. It wasn’t just living in dirt floor shacks on the grounds of a mansion. It wasn’t the same daily death of dignity as you feel working in customer service, it was worse. It was all so much worse than what most American workers go through. This doesn’t mean don’t complain. It means choose your words for accuracy, not shock value.
Exploitation happens on a continuum. The boss who expects you to work for five minutes after you’ve clocked out is on the low end of that scale. Sheltered workshops that receive government funds for forcing severely disabled adults to do menial tasks for pennies an hour in order to access the benefits they qualify for is a step up. Sexually abusive employers are exploitative as well. Slavery is at the highest end of the scale.
The US Constitution amendment outlawing slavery includes a glaring exception. Slavery is illegal unless the enslaved has been convicted of a crime. Then it’s okay. Today’s plantation owners are the owners and shareholders of for-profit prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America. They tear apart families, force labor, and facilitate every abuse including sexual assault so rampant it’s a national rape joke punchline.