Understanding Modern Slavery and the Race of Freedom
9 October 2015
On October 8th, the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship hosted a seminar on Modern Slavery and the Race of Freedom, having Professor Julia O'Connell Davidson as the guest speaker. Dr O'Connell, who recently joined the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, was welcomed by the School Head Professor Gregor McLennan, and the Centre's Director Professor Tariq Modood.
The history of transatlantic slavery is powerfully entwined with the emergence of the idea of race, and the encoding of freedom and citizenship as white. Though some (mostly black) anti-slavery activists of the 18th and 19th centuries simultaneously articulated demands for an end to bondage and for racial equality, many key white figures in the original abolitionist movement condemned slavery without regarding those they sought to emancipate as ‘ready’ to exercise rights of citizenship in what were imagined as white nations. Indeed, for those who believed in the fiction of race and white superiority, whether proponents of abolition or not, the legal abolition of slavery represented a political dilemma because it would leave uncontained and masterless millions of former slaves, imagined as unfit for freedom by virtue of their blackness. Deportation, restrictions on the mobility rights of people not racialized as white, and the criminalization of masterlessness through vagrancy laws, were among the solutions employed to address this ‘problem’.
This talk considered the continuing life of these measures to preserve the political privilege of whiteness, which play out most notably in the immigration controls and prison industrial complexes of contemporary liberal democratic states, and asked why it is that they go un-noted and unaddressed in popular and political discourse on ‘modern slavery’.