Making Headlines in America: 21st Century Slavery

Media outlets around the country carried the recent story of the woman who purchased a handbag at an Arizona Walmart and found hidden in the bag a desperate note, purportedly from an enslaved Chinese worker. Here is a translation of the note.

Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).

Nonprofit groups like China Labor Watch are accusing Walmart of not doing enough to prevent sourcing of goods made with slave labor. For its part, Walmart says it is investigating.

“We’re making contact with the customer and appreciate her bringing this to our attention. With the information we have, we are looking into what happened so we can take the appropriate actions,” Ragan Dickens, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in an e-mail to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Of course, it’s possible that the note is not authentic, since anyone who handled the bag between China and Arizona could have inserted the note. Walmart should nonetheless investigate, and if they find evidence of slave labor, they should definitely act to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile, non-profit groups seem to be much less concerned about another recent report about slavery even though it took place right here in the USA. You read that right–slavery in modern America. The story comes from Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon who revealed shortly before he died that he and his family owned a slave.

Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.

To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said “please” and “thank you.” We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.

After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.

Needless to say, owning a slave in America is highly unlawful. In fact, it’s unconstitutional! And how long was this poor woman enslaved in America? Fifty-six years, until she died. U.S. government authorities allowed this family to traffic the slave into the country, and then never did catch up with them for fifty-six years. Good job!

Now I’m wondering: How many other immigrants are bringing slaves with them to America? How many slaves live among us in America today? What is the government doing about it? Not much, if the Tizon case is any indication.

Walmart may or may not have a slavery problem. But the federal government surely does. Maybe I’m biased, but I frankly have more confidence in Walmart’s ability to clean up its act than I do in the federal government’s.

Meanwhile, Tizon the slaveowner actually published a bestselling book about how America is racist toward Asian males like him. The book is apparently an assigned text for many of the proliferating college courses on victimology. The Seattle Times called his book “a devastating critique of contemporary American culture.”

Tizon’s arguments in the book seem to be based primarily on personal anecdotes of slights he perceived to have received from Americans on account of being Asian. Tizon’s book may well have some merit, but even though the book is autobiographical, he never mentions his slaveowning. I guess it would tend to undermine his narrative as a victim of discrimination if he admitted to owning a freaking slave.

Meanwhile, in racist America, Tizon somehow managed to live in affluent neighborhoods, attend the best schools, win a Pulitzer Prize, and write a best-selling book. By his own admission he “had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream.”

Too bad his slave never had those same opportunities.

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