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Racism Through Another Lens: Why Atlanta Killings Must Open Our Eyes to Human Trafficking

Racism Through Another Lens: Why Atlanta Killings Must Open Our Eyes to Human Trafficking

Litcy Kurisinkal
  • It maybe unbelievable to most that horrific crimes like sex trafficking are possible in this country, in our neighborhoods, right under our noses.

Ever since I heard the news about the Atlanta massacre, like most others, I have been troubled. The killings have brought to light myriad issues – gun violence, racist hate crime against Asians, sex and gender biased crimes, police insensitivity and cultural incompetence, appalling contrast between handling white criminals and people of color and the misguided religious dogmatism of a few. 

Nothing can justify the loss of those eight lives. Six of those Asian women laid their lives for no mistake of theirs, but for the arrogant privilege of a white terrorist who found no other way to absolve himself from his own perceived sins and lack of self-control. 

In spite of it all, one thing that kept disturbing my mind was why did Robert Long go to three different massage parlors that are far away from each other for indulging in a hate crime or for consuming sex as per his testimony? This is not giving primacy to his words vs the people who lost their lives, but a quest to understand the real truth behind a very complex incident. To most Americans, a massage parlor is a place for relaxation and those who work there are paid a minimum wage, basic benefits and of course the tips. However, the reality is that many of the masseurs are paid much less than the current minimum wage. 

As a human rights researcher who has studied human trafficking quite a bit, my mind immediately flashed the red signal. The UNODC report 2020 shows that the primary destination of South Asian and East Asian trafficked victims is North America. The main form of exploitation they face is sexual exploitation. Many a time, the trafficked victims are lured with the promise of jobs, opportunities, marriage etc.

Once a trafficked victim is in a foreign land, very often the traffickers take away all their official documents and identity cards, which strip them off their legal existence. In a foreign country, where they do not speak the language, have no access to any support system and are constantly threatened about their illegal existence in the country, or causing harm to their family back in their homeland, trafficked victims are left with no choices.  Under the threats, intimidation and violence by their traffickers, many trafficked victims are nothing but slaves of their owners. 

Sex slavery is a cruel reality that exists in the U.S. Sex tourism to Asian countries by white men is another reality that requires a different conversation.

It maybe unbelievable to most that such horrific crimes like sex trafficking are possible in this country, in our neighborhoods, right under our noses. Unfortunately, that is the truth if you refer to any official trafficking reports. Sex slavery is a cruel reality that exists in the U.S. Sex tourism to Asian countries by white men is another reality that requires a different conversation. Therefore, when we talk about a race-based hate crime, we may want to look at race through another lens – the sex trafficking of Asian women into the U.S. as well as the huge demand for them by the Americans.

There is a lot of pressure mounting from the activist groups to label the Atlanta killing as a ‘hate based crime’. I understand that the COVID phase has accentuated the crimes against Asians owing to their targeting by uncouth President Trump and media outlets. It is legitimate to conclude that if 6 of the 8 people who got killed are Asian women, it has to be a hate crime against Asians. I do not disagree with it at all. However, we need to dig deep into the reason why different massage parlors have Asian women as masseuses and what their living conditions are. 

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I personally do not believe in the principle of nonintervention when the crimes are deeply troubling and widespread. We saw its outcome for decades when we chose to politely ignore domestic violence. Now that there are proactive interventions, women have access to robust support systems that rescue them from domestic violence. Modern slavery and sex slavery deserve the attention of Americans who have historically fought against slavery and racism in this country and all over the world.  Modern slavery of trafficked victims and groomed young girls from our neighborhoods need our help. We should not let it happen under our watch. It is time we open our eyes and be part of the vigilant community watch.

Next time when you conveniently overlook the linguistic troubles of Asian women in your massage parlors or when your male colleagues talk casually about his fun time at a dance bar or bachelors party with Asian women, think whether those women were there with full consent or under the intimidation of slave owners. Open your eyes! The other major red flags are the sporting events like the World Cups, Super Bowl events, Olympics when sex trafficking and child trafficking are on the rise. So, always Be Vigilant! Looks can be deceptive. It is racism packaged differently.


Litcy Kurisinkal is a Human Rights Research Consultant. She has worked as the External Research Support for the UN Special Rapporteur on Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children. She has worked on a range of human rights issues like civil and political rights, children’s rights, labor rights, migrant rights, health rights and protection of street children. She is a Public Policy graduate from Harvard Kennedy School in Harvard University. She was awarded the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Paper Prize in 2013 from Harvard Kennedy School. 

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