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Slavery and Race Relations

Aired December 26, 2006 - 14:00:00   ET


SHIHAB RATTANSI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Slavery. It's not a remnant of the distant past but a reality for many around the world. Some, as in the past, are taken captive and made to work against their will. Others are held prisoner to their economic circumstances, forced to work for meager wages or none at all, with mere survival their only reward.
Welcome to INSIGHT.

Slavery is not legal anywhere, but it happens everywhere. According to Free the Slaves, a U.S.-based anti-slavery organization, there are 27 million slaves in the world today, more, it says, than at any time in human history.

In many cases, modern slavery is the hidden underside of today's global economy as some of the world's most economically and socially vulnerable people produce the everyday products that consumers purchase. A commodity as common as sugar can be a product of modern day slave labor, as Joe Johns found out in the Dominican Republic.


JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's very early in the Dominican Republic. There in the predawn shadows, you see men with machetes and water jugs. They're going to work at one of the hardest jobs in the world.

They cut sugar cane, the same way it's cut in other parts of the Caribbean. It looks like a scene from slavery in the United States more than 140 years ago, the overseers on horseback. Some are armed. The cane piled high. Oxen will pull it to be weighed at a local processing plant. Much of the sugar, ultimately shipped to the United States.

What we found here was not slavery. Instead, we found people who are enslaved by their circumstances. Most are Haitians who crossed the border into the Dominican Republic to work. They have no rights. They live in squalor. Many earn just enough to eat, if they're lucky. The oxen look like they're in better condition.

Look at this. It's called a batay, a shanty settlement. Hard to believe, but this man is only in his 50s. He worked in the cane fields for nearly 40 years. His shack is filthy. He hasn't eaten in four days.

With no work in Haiti he came here as a teenager, and now he's sick and alone, on crutches and living on hand-outs from people who can't afford to give them.

We also met this man. He says he was badly cut in a fight with machetes. In fact, with hard long days swinging razor sharp tools, these wounds are common. For him, there's nothing here now and even less, he says, back home in Haiti.

We found this man cutting cane on a Sunday. With five children back in Haiti to feed, he works seven days a week.

We also met children. They tell us they started in the cane fields at age seven. For less than a penny an hour, they plant rows of cane shoots 100 yards long. They were happy to have the work.

(on camera): How much do you get paid?


JOHNS: How long does it take to do that work?


JOHNS (voice-over): Many of the vast cane fields here are owned by the wealthy Vicini (ph) family. They say they do not use children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not tolerate child labor.

JOHNS: Zero tolerance, but with so many workers and so many acres the Vicinis (ph) can't necessarily control who gets hired to work in their fields. Some kids tell us they know who pays them.

(on camera): They've been doing it the same way for 100 years here in the Dominican Republic. It's backbreaking work. And they don't get paid by the hour. Their work is measured by each ton of sugar cane they harvest.

(voice-over): In a day, a fast cane cutter like this man can cut up to two tons, earning up to 250 pesos. That's about $8. But because they're paid by the ton, the old or slow can starve.

So why do they come here? Simple. For all the hardship, it's still better than Haiti, where the minimum daily wage for agriculture workers is about $3 and unemployment is well above 50 percent.

On our visit, a U.S. congressional delegation worried about human rights also arrived, so the Vicinis (ph) opened up. For us, it was an opportunity for keeping them honest.

(on camera): The conditions here are very tough, though, because this is the lowest rung of the economic ladder, is it not, the people who work in the fields?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't say that.

JOHNS: No? They don't make much money, though.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They make 150 pesos -- 105 pesos a month -- I mean per ton. Can I ...

JOHNS (voice-over): When we put the question of slave labor directly to one of the Vicini's (ph) top lieutenants, he laughed it off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe, it is a ridiculous question.

JOHNS: He told us to ask the people themselves, so we did.

(on camera): Is this like slavery?

(voice-over): Human rights advocates introduced us to workers who gave us the unofficial version.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said, yes, it's worst than slavery.

JOHNS: And if this shocks you, perhaps the biggest shock of all is that it's much better now than in the recent past. And yet it could still get worse.

The company is moving to replace the oxen and the children and the strong men with machines. So as awful as this may be, the people here say at least now they have jobs that at least pay a little.

Joe Johns, CNN, the Dominican Republic.


RATTANSI: Eric Roorda is a professor at Bellamine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches on subjects including Latin American history and the Dominican Republic. He's also the author of the book "The Dictator Next Door" on former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. He joins us now from Tampa, Florida.

Professor, thanks for joining us.

How widespread are such appalling conditions in the Dominican Republic?

PROF. ERIC ROORDA, AUTHOR: I think it's throughout the sugar industry and has been for more than 100 years.

RATTANSI: How did it get so bad? How is it allowed to continue?

ROORDA: Well, sugar came late, relatively speaking, to the Dominican Republic, and ever since it was planted there, quite literally in the late 19th century, there's been a shortage of labor to do the harvest.

It has a bad reputation, that sort of work, among Dominicans, and so really beginning especially with the U.S. occupation between 1916 and 1924, where many U.S. corporations modernized and expanded the Dominican sugar industry, the importation of Haitian workers and the terrible circumstances has been the rule.

RATTANSI: Is anything being done, other than going to increased mechanization, as we just heard in Joe Johns' report, to actually help the workers?

ROORDA: Yes. Because of a great deal of international scrutiny over the last 20 years from the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, International Labor Organization, America's Watch, you could go on, many reports have focused on the debt peonage, the virtual enslavement of Haitians due to the debts that they run up.

But the problem is that the Dominican sugar industry is in a state of collapse. Since 1999, the dominant state-owned sugar entity that had 3/4 of the industry in its hands, has been privatized, and the rate of production has declined dramatically and the demand for the workers has correspondingly gone down. And so the situation of the workers already in the Dominican Republic is worse than before. And that's a lot of workers, somewhere between 600,000 and a million Haitians in the Dominican Republic, or Dominico-Haitians, Haitians who were born in the Dominican Republic but who are not recognized as citizens.

RATTANSI: It sounds, then, like the choice isn't between good labor standards and bad labor standards, but bad labor standards and no jobs at all.

ROORDA: That's correct. There have been improvements in the labor standards in recent years. For instance, in the last year the payment of scrip, of worthless pieces of paper that would not be legal tender outside the company store, was outlawed. And I think it's rather ironic that the U.S. congressional delegation to the Dominican Republic focused on a Dominican-owned operation, the Vicini (ph), who are really one of the better of the operations, instead of focusing on one of the U.S.-owned operations that continues to enjoy preferential treatment on the U.S. market.

RATTANSI: Can consumers do anything, then? Should they be boycotting Dominican sugar, for example?

ROORDA: I don't believe that's at all the solution. I think what we really need to do is probably look a little bit more closely at our own house.

The Florida sugar industry is also filled with abuses. I don't think that boycotting a declining industry and adding to the misery of a nation that's already going through terrible economic tumult, would be any answer at all.

RATTANSI: So obviously, this is to do with the political situation both in the Dominican Republic and indeed Haiti. Is anything being done, then, to ease things?

ROORDA: Well, that's a very difficult situation, because Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, and there's a tremendous amount of immigration pressure, the push kind, for people to try to leave the desperate circumstances of Haiti, and the pull kind, because outside of the Dominican sugar batays, there are opportunities for Haitians in the comparatively better circumstances in the Dominican Republic.

Now, the Dominican Republic is going through terrible times itself with skyrocketing inflation, but for a poor Haitian, the prospect of perhaps landing a job in the construction industry or in assembly or such like that is really a dream come true, and so we continue to have a great deal of population, immigration pressure. It's analogous in some ways to the United States, where there is a great deal of public outcry over Mexican immigration. And yet the economy depends on the Mexican laborers filling certain segments of our economy, especially in the agricultural sector.

RATTANSI: Professor Roorda, thank you.

ROORDA: Thank you very kindly.

RATTANSI: Legal slavery has not existed in the United States for nearly a century and a half, but racial attitudes that enable the institution to persist were slow to change.

When we come back, a look at race relations in the United States. How much has it improved over the years, or has it at all?


RATTANSI: Slavery is the product of economic inequality. As such, it knows no racial or geographical bounds. And the combination of a global population explosion and the new global economy means slaves are cheaper and more disposable than at anytime before.

Welcome back.

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, although campaigners say it is still widespread. According to U.S. government estimates, between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. The ugly modern trade doesn't discriminate by race. Its antecedent, however, was intimately bound up in the domination of white over black. The laws of segregation that followed slavery's abolition may have long been officially repudiated, but the United States is still rife with practices that show how little has changed in some places.

Deborah Feyerick reports.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Take a close look at this map. It's the state of Illinois. And, like every other state in this atlas, the handwritten pink markings reveal what sociologist James Loewen calls America's hidden problem.

(on camera): All towns that you have marked here in pink had a whites-only policy on purpose? It wasn't an accident?

JAMES LOEWEN, AUTHOR: That's what I'm saying, formal or informal.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Loewen spent the last five years exploring a dark part of the nation's past, writing a comprehensive history on what he calls sundown towns.

LOEWEN: A sundown town is a town that, for decades, was -- and some of them still are -- all white on purpose.

FEYERICK: They are called sundown towns, because, when the sun went down, African-Americans had to make sure they were outside city limits.

LOEWEN: If you are a black person after dark in a sundown town, you have made a mistake. And I have case after case of people being killed for it.

FEYERICK: When Loewen began his research five years ago, he was surprised to find so many towns, 10,000 by his estimate, that qualified as sundown towns cropping up at the turn of the century, and lasting up until the 1970s.

And they weren't in the Deep South, but mostly in the North, places like Illinois, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, to name a few.

LOEWEN: It was said that, if you were driving from Saint Louis to Chicago, you better gas up, and even have a -- a spare tank of gas in your car.

FEYERICK: Some had warning whistles, others, signs at the city limits that said "Whites Only After Dark." Most often, people just knew they had to get out of town, not because of any law but because they'd heard stories of harassment, intimidation, even death.

LOEWEN: Everybody just knew. And if they didn't know, the chief of police made sure they did know.

FEYERICK (on camera): If the chief of police enforces something, even if it's not on the books...

LOEWEN: That's an ordinance.

FEYERICK: That's an ordinance.

LOEWEN: For all intents and purposes.

FEYERICK: (voice-over): Some of these towns became havens for the Ku Klux Klan. And, even as time passed, and a town changed, it was difficult to shake the history.

Steven Taylor grew up outside Buffalo, New York, in what was once considered a sundown town. He still remembers the blatant racism his mother faced when the family tried to buy a house.

STEVEN TAYLOR, PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: This was back in late '64. She said to him, just before hanging up, "So, by the way, we're colored," which the term that we used then.

And he said, "Well, in that case, Mrs. Taylor, you don't have enough money for this house." Click.

FEYERICK: Loewen believes that most sundown towns have given up their policies. Still, he says, look closely, and there are many areas that remain off-limits to blacks.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, Washington.


RATTANSI: So in some parts of the United States, a historical legacy of racism is difficult to overcome. Even though race relations may have improved, the scars from the past remain. In one town, residents are trying to heal. Not by forgetting the past and moving on but by confronting the issue directly.

Ed Lavandera reports from Philadelphia, Mississippi.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's just a brochure. But the words tell a terrible story.

SUSAN GLISSON, INSTITUTE FOR RACIAL RECONCILIATION: It's sort of this huge secret that everybody knew but nobody talked about.

LAVANDERA: This little tourist pamphlet by Susan Glisson and Jewel McDonald tells of Philadelphia, Mississippi's journey of racial reconciliation. No one who lives here had ever before put the story to paper.

The pamphlet takes the dirt road where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 for helping register black voters. A mob of Ku Klux Klansmen shot and killed them here in the darkness.

DEBORAH POSEY, PHILADELPHIA, MS RESIDENT: T he blood that was spilt on this land was a horrendous thing.

LAVANDERA: The pamphlet inspired Deborah Posey, who was nine years old in 1964, to relearn the history of what happened. Her family had always described the murdered workers as hippie troublemakers. She says the truth is still painful for many blacks she owns.

POSEY: Well, they haven't forgot it. It's still pains that they cry about. It's still pains that they dream about. It's still fears that they have. And they react to life according to that.

LAVANDERA: No one was convicted at the time for the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, but it was a turning point in the civil right movement, later immortalized in the movie "Mississippi Burning".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You all think you can drive any speed you want around here?

LAVANDERA: About three years ago, some residents, tired of living in a city defined by the murders, created the Philadelphia Coalition.

Jewel McDonald, whose mother and brother were savagely beaten by Klan members looking for the civil rights workers, finally could tell her neighbors and friends what they had gone through.

JEWEL MCDONALD, PHILADELPHIA, MS RESIDENT: And you can see my eyes are all tearing up and you know, after 40-some years, you would think, my God, this girl should be over this. But people don't understand.

LAVANDERA: The stories didn't stop. There were tears and there was anger.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We acknowledge the sins of our past.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we do that, I think we'll send rumbles throughout the United States.

LAVANDERA: Jim Prince (ph) and Leroy Clemens, who lead the coalition, discovered they had made a breakthrough.

LEROY CLEMENS, PHILADELPHIA COALITION: As far as the black community was concerned, whites didn't care. It happened, they just wanted to move on and forget about it.

LAVANDERA: The coalition pushed to prosecute the Klan members responsible for the murders. Last year, it finally happened. Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of organizing the mob that killed the civil rights workers, an elderly man sent to prison for the rest of his life.

(on camera): The trial of Edgar Ray Killen and the creation of the Racial Coalition is often described by many people here as simply the first step. No one will tell that you race relations are perfect because in many ways it's still very difficult to get people to talk about racism.

(voice-over): But Jewel McDonald says there is only one way to change the past.

MCDONALD: You got to be willing to talk. You got to come to the table.

LAVANDERA: And she says if people here can do that, black and white can come together anywhere.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Philadelphia, Mississippi.


RATTANSI: We're going to take a break, but when we return, the next generation. Will their attitudes on race today make for a better tomorrow?


RATTANSI: Welcome back.

They weren't alive during the U.S. civil rights movement of the mid 20th century, and to them, institutionalized slavery together with policies of racial inequality that followed, are products of a distant past. If race relations have been improving over the years, the views of children today could provide clues as to how much better or worse things will be in the near future.

Paula Zahn gauged the views of some members of the next generation.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We went to three very different fourth grade classrooms in three very different neighborhoods. What we found in each was, in a word, optimistic.

(on camera): What are the first three things that you think of when you think of a white person?


ZAHN: Friendly.


ZAHN: Nice.


ZAHN (voice-over): At this public school in Yonkers, New York, 78 percent of the students are African-American and Hispanic. They say they've been taught to value each other.

(on camera): And what would be the first three words that come to mind when you think of what defines a black person?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The same, probably the same.

ZAHN: So you don't see any difference between white people and black people?



ZAHN (voice-over): At the Grace Church School in lower Manhattan, where tuition is $26,000 a year, where there are just two black students in a class of 43, we heard much the same.

(on camera): When you hang out with your friends, do you ever spend time with black children?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sometimes. I mean, I don't look at people of their color of their skin. I look at people, what's inside of them. And that's all that matters.

ZAHN: Do you think much about your being black and Oliver being white? Do you spend much time thinking about that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't really spend time thinking about that.

ZAHN: So, you have white friends?


ZAHN: You have black friends?


ZAHN (voice-over): These children, in a Chicago public school, black and white, live together, learn together, they say, in harmony.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're humans and just because we're in different forms doesn't mean that we're not the same.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sometimes, people would say, oh, why do you have a black friend? I'd say, it doesn't matter, really. They're just different skin color.

ZAHN (on camera): Do you tend to hang out with black kids or white kids?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It really doesn't matter because I hang out with anyone. I hang out with white people and black people and many kind of people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like, if Samantha was my best friend, I wouldn't say that I wouldn't be your friend if she was black, because that's not how you treat a person.

ZAHN: Who taught you that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I kind of just know. Like my parents and everyone always says don't treat people differently because they're black.

ZAHN (voice-over): The question, of course, is whether those lessons will last. Based on what the children told me, there seems to be a pretty good chance of that.

(on camera): Do you consider racism a bad word?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, not really a bad word, but racism itself is a bad thing. It's wrong.

ZAHN: So, what do you want America to learn from your experience here at school and your experience at home?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they should learn that everybody should be treated the same way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They shouldn't be judged by the color of their skin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't judge them by their skin color, judge them by how they act.


RATTANSI: That report by Paula Zahn.

That's INSIGHT. I'm Shihab Rattansi.



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