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The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today / Edition 2

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today / Edition 2

by Kevin Bales, Ron Soodalter Kevin Bales
Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Pub. Date:
University of California Press
The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today / Edition 2

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today / Edition 2

by Kevin Bales, Ron Soodalter Kevin Bales
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In this riveting book, authors and authorities on modern slavery Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter expose the disturbing phenomenon of human trafficking and slavery that exists now in the United States. In The Slave Next Door we find that these horrific human rights violations are all around us; people sold into slavery are often hidden in plain sight: the dishwasher in the kitchen of the neighborhood restaurant, the kids on the corner selling cheap trinkets, the man sweeping the floor of the local department store. In these pages we also meet some unexpected modern-day slave owners, such as a 27-year old middle-class Texas housewife who is currently serving a life sentence for offences including slavery. Weaving together a wealth of voices—from slaves, slaveholders, and traffickers as well as from experts, counselors, law enforcement officers, rescue and support groups, and community leaders—this book is also a call to action, telling what we, as private citizens and political activists, can do to raise community awareness, hold politicians accountable, and finally bring an end to this horrific and traumatic crime. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520268661
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/23/2010
Edition description: Second Edition, With a New Preface
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 609,937
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kevin Bales is the author of Ending Slavery and Disposable People, both from UC Press. He is also Co-Founder of Free the Slaves, Washington DC, and Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the WIlberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. He is the world's leading expert on contemporary slavery.
Ron Soodalter, historian, folklorist, and lecturer, is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, as well as articles on the historic and modern slave trade, the Civil War, and the American West. A respected Lincolnian scholar, he serves on the Board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute.

Read an Excerpt

The Slave Next Door

Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

By Kevin Bales, Ron Soodalter


Copyright © 2009 Ron Soodalter and Kevin Bales
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94803-7



The great thought of captains, owners, consignees, and others, was to make the most money they could in the shortest possible time. Human nature is the same now as then.

Frederick Douglass, The New National Era, August 17, 1871, recalling the Atlantic slave trade

Certain things we know to be true. We know that slavery is a bad thing, perpetrated by bad people. We also know that slavery not only exists throughout the world today but flourishes. With approximately twenty-seven million people in bondage, it is thought to be the third most profitable criminal enterprise of our time, following only drugs and guns. In fact, more than twice as many people are in bondage in the world today than were taken from Africa during the entire 350 years of the Atlantic slave trade. And we know that slavery is alive and more than well in the United States, thriving in the dark, and practiced in many forms in places where you'd least expect it.

Meet Sandra Bearden. Sandra was a twenty-seven-year-old homemaker in a comfortable suburb of Laredo, Texas—a neighborhood of solid brick homes and manicured lawns. Married, the mother of a four-year-old son, she lived a perfectly normal middle-class existence. By all accounts, Sandra was a pleasant woman, the sort you'd chat with at the mall or the supermarket ... the sort who might live next door. Yet she is currently serving a life sentence, convicted of multiple offenses, including human trafficking and slavery.

It started innocently enough. At first, all Sandra wanted was a maid—someone to do the housework and help with her small son—but she didn't want to pay a lot. So she drove across the border to a small, dirt-poor village near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where she was introduced to Maria and her parents. Maria was only twelve when she met Sandra Bearden. She had very little schooling and dreamed of getting an education—a dream that her parents encouraged but could do nothing to achieve. Over coffee in their small kitchen, Bearden offered Maria a job, as well as the chance to attend school, learn English, and taste the rich life of "el Norte." The work, as Bearden described it, was much like what Maria was already doing at home, and, with the promise of education and opportunity, Sandra's offer made a very enticing package. The fact that Sandra herself was Mexican born helped Maria's parents feel they could trust her, and they gave their permission. Sandra smuggled Maria across the border in her expensive car and drove her to her home in Laredo.

On arrival, Maria was dragged into hell. Sandra Bearden used violence and terror to squeeze work and obedience from the child. From early morning till midafternoon, Maria cooked, cleaned, scrubbed, and polished. If Maria dozed off from exhaustion, or when Sandra decided she wasn't working fast enough, Sandra would blast pepper spray into Maria's eyes. A broom was broken over the girl's back and a few days later, a bottle against her head. At one point, Bearden tortured the twelve-year-old by jamming a garden tool up her vagina. That was Maria's workday; her "time off" was worse.

When Maria wasn't working, Sandra would chain her to a pole in the backyard without food or water. An eight-foot concrete fence kept her hidden from neighbors. After chaining her, Sandra would sometimes force Maria to eat dog feces. Then Maria would be left alone, her arms chained behind her with a padlock, her legs chained and locked together till the next morning, when the work and torture would begin again. Through the long afternoon and night Maria would fade in and out of consciousness from dehydration, and in her hunger she would sometimes scoop dirt into her mouth. Like most slaves in America, Maria was in shock, disoriented, isolated, and dependent. To maintain control, Bearden kept Maria hungry and in pain.

About one-third of the handful of slaves freed in the United States each year come to liberty because an average person sees something he or she just can't ignore. Luckily, one of the Beardens' neighbors had to do some work on his roof, and that probably saved Maria's life. Looking down over the high concrete wall into the Bearden's backyard, the neighbor saw a small girl chained up and whimpering; he called 911.

The police found Maria chained hand and foot, covered in cuts and bruises, and suffering from dehydration and exposure. She was too weak to walk and had to be carried to freedom on a stretcher. Her skin was badly burned from days in the sun. (In Laredo, Texas, the average summer temperature is ninety-eight degrees.) Photos taken at the time show one of her eyes bloodied and infected and thick welts and scars on her skin where the chains had cut into her. She had not eaten in four days. The district attorney said, "This is the worst case I've ever seen, worse than any murder. It's tragic all the way around." Later, at Bearden's trial, the policeman who found Maria wept. "She was shaking and crying and had a scared look in her eyes. She was in severe pain," Officer Jay Reece testified. He explained that he had tried to remove the chains from Maria's arms with bolt cutters but couldn't. As he tried to move her arm to cut the chains, she twisted and whimpered because she was in so much pain. "I've never seen anything like it before," Reese said, and sitting in the witness box, this policeman began to cry.

It is hard to imagine, but Maria was one of the lucky slaves. In America, most slaves spend four to five years in bondage; Maria's enslavement lasted only seven months. Sandra Bearden was arrested, and the Mexican government brought Maria's parents up from Vera Cruz. Her father blamed himself for what had happened. "We made a decision that we thought would be good for our child, and look what happened. I made a mistake, truly, and this is all my fault," he said. Unlike most slaveholders in America, Bearden was caught and convicted. Like most slaves, Maria got nothing, except the fare for the twelve-hour bus ride home. She had just turned thirteen.

We all ask, "How could someone so abuse a child—to stake her in the sun, feed her excrement, beat her bloody.... Surely, only a monster could do this." Yet Sandra Bearden's treatment of Maria is not unusual. How a seemingly normal person can descend into a spiral of violent control and abuse of another is one of the mysteries of slaveholding—a mystery we have set out to solve in this book.

The simple truth is, humans keep slaves; we always have. To understand this, we must come to know what it is in the human heart that makes slavery possible. For this book we set out to uncover slavery in modern America. Our search for answers took us to slaves and slave masters, to experts, counselors, and doctors, as well as to leaders of government, law enforcement, and groups whose sole mission is to rescue and support victims. Some of these stories broke our hearts, sometimes the excuses and rationalizations made us boil with anger, and sometimes we met real unsung heroes who gave us hope that America can put an end to slavery once and for all.


Most Americans' idea of slavery comes right out of Roots—the chains, the whip in the overseer's hand, the crack of the auctioneer's gavel. That was one form of bondage. The slavery plaguing America today takes a different form, but make no mistake, it is real slavery. Where the law sanctioned slavery in the 1800s, today it's illegal. Where antebellum masters took pride in the ownership of slaves as a sign of status, today's human traffickers and slaveholders keep slaves hidden, making it all the more difficult to locate victims and punish offenders. Where the slaves in America were once primarily African and African American, today we have "equal opportunity" slavery; modern-day slaves come in all races, all types, and all ethnicities. We are, if anything, totally democratic when it comes to owning and abusing our fellow human beings. All that's required is the chance of a profit and a person weak enough and vulnerable enough to enslave.

This is capitalism at its worst, and it is supported by a dramatic alteration in the basic economic equation of slavery. Where an average slave in 1850 would have cost the equivalent of $40,000 in modern money, today's slave can be bought for a few hundred dollars. This cheapness makes the modern slave easily affordable, but it also makes him or her a disposable commodity. For the slaveholder it's often cheaper to let a slave die than it is to buy medicine to keep the slave alive. There is no form of slavery, past or present, that isn't horrific; however, today's slavery is one of the most diabolical strains to emerge in the thousands of years in which humans have been enslaving their fellows.


According to a U.S. State Department study, some 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States from overseas and enslaved each year. They come from Africa, Asia, India, China, Latin America, and the former Soviet states. Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers; many are stolen from the streets of their own cities and towns. Some sources, including the federal government, have put out extremely high estimates of the number of U.S. citizens—primarily children—caught in slavery. The fact is, the precise number of slaves in the United States, whether trafficked in from other countries or enslaved from our own population, is simply not known. Given the hidden nature of the crime, the best numbers on offer are rough estimates. We do know that slaves in America are found—or rather, not found—in nearly all fifty states, working as commercial sex slaves, fruit pickers, construction workers, gardeners, and domestics. They work in restaurants, factories, laundries, and sweatshops. Each year human trafficking and slavery in America generate millions upon millions of dollars for criminals who prey on the most vulnerable: the desperate, the uneducated, and the impoverished immigrant seeking a better life. Brutalized and held in slavery for years, those who survive face indifference, official confusion, stigma, and shame as they struggle to regain control over their stolen and deeply damaged lives.

While no one knows for sure how many people are enslaved in America, a conservative estimate would be around fifty thousand and growing. Even for those who have worked in this area for years, these numbers are staggering. More astounding is the fact that this is a crime that, as a rule, goes unpunished. This lack of punishment is reflected in a remarkable parallel in American crime rates. If we accept the government's estimates, about seventeen thousand people are trafficked into slavery in the United States in any given year; coincidentally about seventeen thousand people are murdered in the United States each year. Obviously, murder is the ultimate crime, but slavery comes a close second, especially considering the other crimes associated with it, such as rape and torture. Note that the national success rate in solving murder cases is about 70 percent; around eleven thousand murders are "cleared" each year. But according to the U.S. government's own numbers, the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is less than 1 percent. If 14,500 to 17,500 people were newly enslaved in America in 2006, the fact is that in the same year the Department of Justice brought charges against only 111 people for human trafficking and slavery; 98 of them were convicted. And those figures apply only to people trafficked from other countries; no measures exist for domestic slavery victims.

In July 2004 then-President Bush talked about the rate of arrests and convictions for human trafficking in the United States: "Since 2001, we've charged 110 traffickers. That's triple the number charged in the previous three years. We're beginning to make good, substantial progress. The message is getting out: We're serious. And when we catch you, you'll find out we're serious. We're staying on the hunt." Strong words, but the unvarnished truth is, with less than 1 percent of the offenders apprehended and less than 1 percent of the victims freed, the flow of human "product" into America continues practically unchecked.


This book is about slavery in America today. Yet there has always been bondage in this country. That fact bears repetition—there has never been a single day in our America, from its discovery and birth right up to the moment you are reading this sentence, without slavery.

It began when the Spaniards landed. In 1493, on his second voyage across the Atlantic, and before even establishing a colony, Christopher Columbus enslaved hundreds of Taino Indians and shipped them home to Spain. The wave of armed and armored conquistadores following Columbus brought a plague of butchery and enslavement upon the Indians, destroying entire cultures. With the age-old rationale that any foreign society is inferior, the Spaniards used the "God-told-me-to-doit" argument to justify a policy of rape, slaughter, and enslavement in their quest for riches.

When the Spaniards found that the Indians, not surprisingly, were dying in droves from brutality and European diseases, they began to sail to Africa for slaves—bozales, as they were called. In 1518, King Charles of Spain gave royal consent to begin what would become the 350-year trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ultimately, every European power claiming land in the New World followed Spain's example. French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and English settlers from the Canadian North to the bottom tip of South America owned slaves. There was a heavy concentration not only in the southern colonies of Virginia and Georgia but also on the farms and docks of the northern settlements of Massachusetts and New York. Slave labor in America became an accepted social and economic reality. Once again, the "heathen" state of the victims, along with the difference in their skin color, made for an easy—if false—moral distinction in the minds of the slavers.

Most of us are not aware that following the American Revolution Congress passed a series of increasingly stringent laws banning the international slave trade (while leaving the institution of slavery untouched), culminating in a law that made trafficking in slaves a hanging offense. Congress, however, did little to enforce these laws, and both slavery and the slave trade flourished until the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. It's a safe bet that a vast majority of Americans believes that slavery ended in 1865; nothing could be further from the truth. It continued more quietly and on a smaller scale, but without pause.

While legal emancipation might have come with the Thirteenth Amendment, that didn't stop the southern planters from re-enslaving countless thousands of African Americans. Crops in the South still needed planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and there was a vast population of unemployed former slaves. Planters instituted a system that was as close to the old slavery as possible, but with some new wrinkles. With the blessing of President Andrew Johnson, each southern state passed what were referred to as Black Codes. These laws were nothing more than legalized racial repression, dictating every aspect of the lives of the former slaves. The laws of each state varied, but in general, segregation was made mandatory, and African Americans were forbidden to vote, sit on juries, carry weapons in public, testify against whites, or hold certain jobs. Violations were punishable by fines and imprisonment.

This time, instead of the old-fashioned antebellum slavery, the rule was "peonage," a simple form of debt bondage slavery that took two forms. In the most blatant form of peonage slavery, local authorities were allowed to "bind out" to local farmers any violators convicted of a crime, often a misdemeanor, and unable to pay their fines. With the law on the side of the white farmers, court-imposed fixed terms of labor became the norm. The number of "violations" increased dramatically as the work called for it. At harvest time, sheriff's deputies were sent into African American neighborhoods and drinking spots to arrest a fixed number of the strongest men. Charged with being "drunk and disorderly," they would be ordered to "work off" a large fine for several months with local white farmers. Cotton production consumed a large part of the people enslaved through peonage, but local governments also worked this scam to serve other interests. This type of forced labor was used to build railroads, roads, and bridges, to clear forests, and to manufacture turpentine. It wasn't the long-term ownership of the antebellum South, but these slaves weren't expensive, and it still meant complete and violent control, no pay, and economic exploitation, the defining hallmarks of slavery. From the 1870s, white-controlled local governments all across the Deep South were essentially slave brokers, enslaving and then selling the labor of African Americans.


Excerpted from The Slave Next Door by Kevin Bales, Ron Soodalter. Copyright © 2009 Ron Soodalter and Kevin Bales. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition

1. The Old Slavery and the New
2. House Slaves
3. Slaves in the Pastures of Plenty
4. Supply and Demand
5. New Business Models
6. Eating, Wearing, Walking, and Talking Slavery

7. Slaves in the Neighborhood
8. States of Confusion
9. The Feds
10. A Future without Slavery

Appendix: For Further Information

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"An informative call to action . . . a humane and helpful primer on how to sever the links that create and hide human bondage."—Publishers Weekly

"Anyone wanting a better understanding of the ongoing problem of slavery in the United States—and their own role in perpetuating or eradicating it—should read this book."—California Lawyer

"Essential reading for anyone interested in human rights. . . . [The authors] appeal to the reader's sense of justice and compassion."—Foreign Policy
In Focus

"If you read one book on human trafficking this year, make it The Slave Next Door. . . . Digestible, enjoyable, and ultimately uplifting."—

"With the help of this great book . . . we can shift from ignoring this crude reality to [eradicating] this abominable practice."—African Politics Portal

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