Last Tuesday, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who is known for her controversial statements, made a very uncontroversial remark about slavery. She said, “Slavery was a terrible part of our nation’s history. It is good that we no longer have slavery.”
I have to agree with Bachmann in part. Slavery was, in fact, a terrible part of our nation’s history. I have to disagree with her, however, that we no longer have slavery. Slave labor is still a part of the U.S. economy despite the 13th Amendment.
In 1960, Edward R. Murrow produced an amazing piece of broadcast journalism, Harvest of Shame. In it, a farmer is quoted as saying, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” In other words, the form of slavery may have shifted, but the practice remains.
The reporting in Harvest of Shame took Murrow to Immokalee, Florida to interview migrant laborers. In 2003, the same place attracted the attention of John Bowe, who wrote a stunning piece for the New Yorkerabout slave labor in the United States. According to Mark Bittman at the New York Times, the problems in Immokalee and the rest of the United States persist to this day. There is a good reason why the tomatoes in the grocery store are only 99 cents a pound: slavery and exploitative labor practices.
Bachmann’s statement on Tuesday won’t make any headlines or raise any eyebrows, but it should. Every time someone says that slavery is part of America’s past, it lulls us into thinking that it is not currently part of our present. With dedication and effort, perhaps it will not be part of our future.