Child Slave Trade Stirs Little Outrage
In the summer of 1996, two Baltimore journalists went to Africa -- to
the war-torn and desperate country of Sudan -- to buy a slave. They had
little trouble making the transaction.
Slavery has been commonplace in Sudan or decades, collateral damage from
a vicious civil war. The journalists bought two boys for about $1000 and
returned them to their grateful father.
The two journalists -- an African American columnist and a white foreign
correspondent for the Baltimore Sun -- might have expected their stories
about the Sudanese slave trade to provoke howls of outrage and protest
from Americans especially African Americans. They might have expected
fiery anti-slavery speeches in black churches and demands that the
federal government intercede. They might have believed their sad and
awful accounts of small children taken from their families during raids
by enemy soldiers would have provoked a resurgence of black America's
interest in human rights on the African continent.
It didn't turn out that way. Outrage followed their news accounts, but
it centered on the ethics of their purchase. They met harsh criticism
from black journalists, who accused them of sensationalism, of
exploitation, of aiding and abetting slave traders.
Since Gregory Kane and Gilbert Lewthwaite wrote their stories, the
inhuman practice of human trade has grown worse across the African
continent. Just last week, news accounts focused on West Africa, where
officials passed on stories of a ship suspected of carrying children who
would be sold into slavery. While the ship was never located and may
never have existed, the news reports sounded credible because so many
children are sold into slavery throughout Africa.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 200,000
children are sold every year, the girls do domestic work or, worse,
prostitution, the boys to field labor. The U.N.'s International Labor
Organization puts the number of children held in slavery or near-slavery
at 250 million.
Still, there is little in the way of outrage, little in the way of
protests or pickets or mass arrests in front of African embassies. A few
conservative church groups have pressured the busy administration to
assist persecuted Christians in Sudan, where an Islamic government is
trying to convert (or wipe out) Christians and animists.
But the modern slave trade has not become a cause celebre among black
American intellectuals. It has not attracted the high-profile attention
that helped to undermine and dismantle apartheid in South
That's not just because white racism is an easier target than
black-on-black exploitation. It's also true that the problem of South
African apartheid had a simple solution: democratic elections leading to
majority rule. By contrast, the problem of modern-day slavery is
complex, with deep roots in intractable social ills such as extreme
poverty, government corruption and civil wars. Protests, pickets and
demonstrations won't end the trade in human chattel.
But the vastness of the problem cannot be an excuse for turning away. If
there were ever an issue that deserved the attention of dedicated
activists who can attract television cameras, congressional hearings and
U.N. resolutions, the modern slave trade is it.
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