Racism: A Driving Force of Human Trafficking

By: Kevin Austin, Director of the Set Free Movement

When I was a missionary in Thailand, I had some conversations that left me truly dumbstruck. A few made me righteously angry. One of these was when I was processing what I was learning about human trafficking with a Thai Christian. I had just returned from a trip to the border of Thailand and Myanmar and I was shaken by what I had learned. My former friend said to me: “I don’t see a problem with enslaving Burmese people – they aren’t human.” 

 Racism is a driving force of human trafficking. 

 While credible national numbers are hard to find, regional data shows a strong connection between racial inequity and human trafficking. According to the Polaris Project: 

“. . . in Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.”[1]

Note these sobering statistics: 

    • In King County, Washington, 52% of all child sex trafficking victims are Black and 84% of youth victims are female, though Black girls only comprise 1.1% of the general population.[2]
    • In South Dakota, Native women represent 40% of sex trafficking victims, though Native people are only 8% of the population. [3] 
    • In Nebraska, 50% of individuals sold online for sex are Black, though Black people comprise only 5% of the general population. [4]

And these:

    •       In King County, Washington, 80% of sex buyers are white men. [5]
    •       In Pennsylvania, 74% of sex buyers are white men. [6]

Certainly, there are other facts like poverty and gender issues, but the data is convincing. People of color, especially girls and children, are more vulnerable than white people; and white men, in particular are preying on the vulnerable. 

What do we do with this information? 

 First, let’s acknowledge that the data is true and lament our brokenness. 

 Second, it’s not just a white/black issue, as illustrated in the story that opened this article. Let’s recognize this as well and broaden the conversation beyond binary thinking. 

 Third, I would argue, as I have in other places, that the injustices of racism, human trafficking, broken families, and predatory sexual behavior are symptoms of community brokenness. Community brokenness is a consequence of sin. So, we need to repent, come together and become neighbors again, listen with compassion, love with no strings attached, while at the same time holding wrong doers accountable, and naming sin as sin. We are agents of hope and healing. We can, in fact, change this reality. 

 Fourth, we need to address racism in all of its forms, the relational, how it infects our neighborhoods, schools, and businesses. The systemic aspects. On and on. I highly recommending reading anything by John Perkins, the scholarly yet accessible literature by Rice and Katongle [7], and The Beloved Community [8] by Marsh. 

Fifth and last, on a very practical level, we can stop “othering” people. For some Thai people the Burmese and Cambodians are “others”, inferior, non-human. This is also the case with some Bulgarians in their treatment of the Roma. Historically, this was the Nazi idea for their attempt to eliminate the Jewish people. Culturally, it’s in part what is behind caste systems. In the United States this plays out in many ways.

Before we think, “Oh, I don’t do that,” think again. We talk about those “Republicans” or those “Democrats”. We refer to women who are being prostituted as “hookers” and “prostitutes”.  Any time we reduce a human being to a label we’ve diminished their humanity and therefore, make it easier to disregard, judge, or worse.

I was a counselor for a short time and worked with men who were court appointed for domestic violence counseling. One man had a significant breakthrough. In anger, instead of calling his wife a “B***h”, he called her by her name. Instead of a thing to hit, her name reminded him of her humanity. The blows stopped. 

Each person is created in the image of God: victims, oppressors, all of us. Let’s all embrace our humanity. There are no “others”. There is only us. 

P.S. One last note: The Set Free Movement is really struggling with our “whiteness”. Our international work is led by international leaders. Our US work is led by 99% white people from white churches. It’s an issue. We recognize it. We are seeking, learning, and looking for ways to change things. We are open to any feedback and help you might offer us.



[1] https://polarisproject.org/blog/2020/07/racial-disparities-covid-19-and-human-trafficking/

[2] Val Richey, OJJDP Online University, Reducing Demand for the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors in Your Community (May 2017); ); Charles Puzzanchera, Anthony Sladky & Wei Kang, Easy Access to Juvenile Populations: 1990-2017 (2018).

[3] Danielle Ferguson, Argus Leader, “Law enforcement, Native Communities focus on sex trafficking prevention training” (Aug. 27, 2016). 

[4] Women’s Fund of Omaha, Nebraska’s Commercial Sex Market (2017), p.8.

[5] Val Richey, OJJDP Online University, Reducing Demand for the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors in Your Community (May 2017).

[6] Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, Report on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania, Spring 2020 (2020), p.13.


[8] https://www.amazon.com/Beloved-Community-Shapes-Justice-Movement-ebook/dp/B001JEGO8S/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Beloved+Community+Marsh&qid=1622738852&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *