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Human Rights and Modern-Day Slavery

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. —President Abraham Lincoln, June 1858

But for all the progress that we’ve made, the bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States.  It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker.  The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen.  The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets.  This should not be happening in the United States of America.  —President Barack Obama, September 2012

Although we are at the dawn of the 21st Century, there are still more than 27 million slaves in the world today, trapped in forced labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, military service, and child labor. Unlike other illicit crimes, like the sale of drugs or guns, human beings can be bought and sold repeatedly, making human trafficking one of the most lucrative franchises on the planet. And yet, although every government in the world has declared slavery an illegal enterprise, it flourishes. To the surprise of many, slavery exists in the United States today, from Richmond, Virginia to Washington, DC to San Francisco.

In light of these facts, this class will pose and seek to answer the following questions:

  • How can we best define and understand modern day slavery?
  • What can the history of the abolitionist movement from the 1800's teach us today, in the 2010's? 
  • How can we predict and explain flows in slavery across global borders?
  • What can government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) do today to stem the tide of human trafficking? 
  • What can we do on the local/community level to address human trafficking? 

Inside the Classroom

Students will investigate the sources and consequences of modern day slavery from historic, ethical, legal, political, and economic perspectives.  Students will critically evaluate and debate practices put forth by policy makers, political activists, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations to understand and stem the tide of modern day slavery. Students will hear from and interact with a number of individuals, including:

  • Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, and one of the pioneers of the modern day anti-slavery movement.
  • Erin Kulpa, Assistant Attorney General, Virginia Attorney General’s Office
  • Student organizations at the University of Richmond which work to address issues of human rights like Amnesty International and SSTOP
  • The Richmond Justice Initiative, which works to mitigate human trafficking in Richmond
  • Survivors of human trafficking like Holly Austin Smith and Shamere McKenzie
  • After-care programs in Richmond, VA like The Gray Haven Project 

Students will also be exposed to Dr. Datta’s on-going research with Kevin Bales. 

Outside the Classroom

Beyond the classroom, students will begin the course with an exploration of the history and legacy of the slave trade in Richmond. We will then move on to contemporary forms of slavery and combine a number of experiential components including:

Research and Capstone Project

Over the course of the fall semester, students carry out research culminating in a research paper on one topic due at the end of the semester. Over the spring semester, students work in groups with their classmates to create a capstone project and subsequent presentation to the University community on those projects.

This Course Fulfills

PLSC 279 is an elective course counting towards the 35 units that students need to graduate.

Course Fast Facts

Monti Datta, Ph.D.

Fall course:
PLSC 279: Human Rights and Modern-Day Slavery (1 unit)

Spring course:
IDST 290: Human Rights and Modern-Day Slavery Seminar (.5 unit)

Group travel:
Los Angeles, California (TBD)

Years Offered: 2013–14, 2014–15, 2017–18, 2018–19, 2020–21

Sample Course Readings

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. 2009.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass. The 1845 classic.

Modern Slavery: the Secret World of 27 Million People, by Kevin Bales, Zoe Trodd, and Alex Kent Williamson. 2009.

They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, by Romeo Dallaire. 2010.

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, by Kevin Bales. 2004.

Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, by Siddharth Kara. 2008.

U.S. State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report. 2013