The Mann Act, ‘White Slave Trade,’ and Cultural Construction of Race Through Criminal Codes

Often the work of cultural — or other kinds of — analysis involves juxtaposing different phenomena or discourses that haven’t been compared in that way before. Sometimes just placing two things together will help illuminate something new about one or the other.

This is because analysis relies on perspective, and perspective is impacted by context: what is near? What is the angle of the perspective? A foundation of critical thinking and critical analysis is that looking at something differently will result in new understanding because there is more data figuring in the analysis.

In this post, I want to juxtapose some research and objects about criminal codes related to race and sex. It’s been a bit of a theme lately on this blog, and I want to follow up last week’s posts with some cultural objects. The nature of juxtaposition in this blog will not be chronological — so don’t get confused if the objects jump back and forth in time!

I’ll leave it up to you, however, to draw some new connections and ideas as a result: and if there’s a question or thought that occurs to you after looking at these things together, I’d love to hear about it!

I. The 1910 Mann Act, also sometimes referred to as the White Slave Traffic Act

You can find the full text of the Mann Act, as passed in 1910, here.  Named for the U.S. Representative James Robert Mann (R-IL), the law made interstate transportation or foreign trade of “women or girls” for the purpose of sex or “immorality” a felony. While the stated goal of the law was to prevent and prosecute large-scale prostitution and sex trafficking organizations, and the exploitation of minors, the language of the law — the inclusion of the word “immoral,” for example — allowed wide and subjective interpretation. In practice, it was often used by federal authority to arrest and prosecute sexual activities between adult men and under-age women, as well as to target interracial couples.

Ken Burns’s 2005 documentary — based on the non-fiction book by historian Geoffrey C. Ward — details the Mann Act’s use by law enforcement to control the private life of boxing champion Jack Johnson, the African American who symbolized a physical and cultural threat to white supremacy in the U.S. and who frequently socialized with white women who came to see his fights.

The Act itself was the culmination of different “decency” and “temperance” campaigns by white women’s groups, which were enabled by other prominent politicians and law enforcement for the purpose of targeting an influx of immigration at the turn-of-the-century, and in response to the post-Emancipation or post-Reconstruction era in the U.S.: when those white property-owners who had benefited from strict economic-racial apartheid during the colonial and slavery periods saw the possibility that their grip on power might be loosened by an increase of men — Black and “foreign” men — into market competition.

II. The League of Nations and The International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children

On both sides of the Atlantic, the salaciousness of the White Slave Trade consolidated social anxieties about the increasing presence of middle-class women in public spaces, as well as the visibility of colonial or racialized “others” in metropolitan centers. In the same year as the first post-war census in Great Britain which showed a demographic shift among single men and women — with significantly more single women than men in the data — the newly established League of Nations convened conferences on the issue of international sex trade and commissioned an international investigation.

In 1927, the landmark study by the League published a report on “the allied problems of prostitution and transport of women and girls from one country to another” (Harris ix). Focusing on the trafficking between Europe, North Africa, South America, and North America, the study identified “state-regulated prostitution” as a target for reform (Piley 90-91). The study was the first ever to systematically document prostitution as the exploitation of particular populations at an international level, extending to twenty-eight nations. Importantly, the study identified the systemic economic and legal conditions which coerce and sustain prostitution, rather than individual moral failings.

While the executive summary of the League’s report expresses sympathy for trafficked women of any nationality who find themselves displaced and facing barriers of language or culture in their new surroundings, Philippa Levine has argued that contemporary rhetoric around the global trafficking of prostitutes contributed to racialization of the colonial structure. Foreignness, agency, and criminality are flexible concepts that find sedimentation through racialized and gendered considerations of trafficked women.

Even in ostensibly objective statistics and official documentation of prostitution and sex trafficking, European women working as prostitutes outside of Europe maintained their whiteness through language in police reports that presumed their choice of criminality, an assumption that incorporates a racial-patriarchal worldview and therefore imagines a downward mobility in these women’s apparent abandonment of their womanhood. On the other hand, trafficked Asian women, for example, maintained racial otherness in official reports through sympathetic language that projected Orientalist sexism onto assumptions of these women’s agentless victimhood as well as their static role as sex object (Levine 137-38).

Within this matrix of nationality and agency forged through race and gender — and further described in terms of sexuality and criminality —  the colonial-patriarchal concept of miscegenation, not directly addressed in the 1927 report, also undoubtedly loomed.

III. Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Let’s take a short side trip around this word “miscegenation,” which is a kind of simulacrum of the larger issue I want to get at in this post (and in this blog more generally). The word was introduced into our language and politics at the same time, with a press hoax that was designed to influence the outcome of the 1864 U.S. presidential election. Two New York World journalists sympathetic to the Democrats, rather than to the Republican Abraham Lincoln, wrote a fake pamphlet purporting to advocate “miscegenation” as the ambition for the future. They invented the word along with a 90-page text advocating racial equality through racial “mixing.” They included language and proposals designed to strike fear in white, property-owning Americans (similar to the provoking of fear in recent presidential campaigns about words like “equity” in Kamala Harris’s statements). The goal was to circulate the the idea that a Lincoln administration would mean the end of white supremacy.

Table of Contents from the hoax pamphlet that introduced the term “miscegenation” as a fake social-engineering project to influence the 1864 U.S. presidential election. Two journalists from the New York World created and secretly circulated the pamphlet to suggest that an Abraham Lincoln administration was secretly planning to enact this policy.

While the word and the “movement” were manufactured in bad-faith, they had real results in the social landscape: from new legislation and criminal codes to “prevent” such a threat to white supremacy, to cultural narratives and, of course, new language.

But anti-miscegenation rhetoric and laws pre-dated the 19th century U.S. political context. Mostly associated with the age of globalization and imperial expansion, the first laws considered as “anti-miscegenation” laws were in colonies in North America, South Africa, and India. And empire, in general, has often come with regulation to control the power dynamics and flow of money between conquering and exploited groups, such as even earlier laws within the Chinese empire restricting marriage between Chinese and Arabian peoples, for example.

These codes — along with the pamphlet hoax — are examples of how political and economic expediency dictates social categories. Often, the very terms and concepts of race or race-related identities and statuses are invented through arbitrary rhetoric and laws designed to control or restrict the flow of political or economic power between one group of people and another.

IV. Wayward Lives, by Saidiya Hartman

“Social reformers and yellow journalists sounded the alarm: The seduction of “unprotected” girls had reached epidemic proportions, so extreme measures were required. White slavery incited the moral panic and the national movement to protect young women from sexual predators. Rumors circulated about white slavery conspiracies, Jewish slave trafficking networks, Negro predators, and Chinatown opium dens, and the utter lack of evidence did little to dampen the fear and hysteria. Common sense held that black girls were the most vulnerable because of the corrupt employment agencies recruiting them from the south, the lack of decent job opportunities, and, most important, the centuries-long habit of consorting with white men, which had been their training in slavery” (Hartman Wayward Lives 220).

““Black women yielded more easily to the temptations of the city than any other girls,” explained Jane Addams, because Negroes as a group, as “a colony of colored people,” had not been brought under social control. Policy makers and reformers insisted they were “several generations behind the Anglo-Saxon race in civilizing agencies and processes.” For this reason, they were in need of greater regulation” (Hartman Wayward Lives 220).

“Moving about the city as they pleased and associating freely with strangers, young women risked harassment, arrest, and confinement. Wayward minor laws made them vulnerable to arrest and transformed sexual acts, even consensual ones with no cash exchanging hands, into criminal offenses. Phrases like “potential prostitute,” “failed adjustment,” and “danger of becoming morally depraved” licensed the dragnet. Casual sexual encounters and serial relationships were branded as “moral depravity,” an offense punishable with a prison sentence. All colored women were vulnerable to being seized at random by the police; those who worked late hours, or returned home after the saloon closed or the lights were extinguished at the dance hall, might be arrested and charged with soliciting. If she had a sexually transmitted disease or children outside of wedlock or mixed-race children, her conviction was nearly guaranteed. Young women between fourteen and twenty-one, but sometimes girls as young as twelve, were sentenced to reformatories for visiting or residing in a house with a bad reputation or suspected of prostitution, or associating with lowlifes and criminals, or being promiscuous, or not working. Those who dared refuse the gender norms and social conventions of sexual propriety—monogamy, heterosexuality, and marriage—or failed to abide the script of female respectability were targeted as potential prostitutes, vagrants, deviants, and incorrigible children. Immorality and disorder and promiscuity and inversion and pathology were the terms imposed to target and eradicate these practices of intimacy and affiliation” (Hartman Wayward Lives 221).

“It was one’s status that determined whether an intimate act, an evening spent with a stranger, or a proclivity to run the streets was a punishable offense. A status offense was a form of behavior deemed illegal only for a particular group of persons. These offenses fell within the jurisdiction of magistrate courts, and judges had great latitude in deciding a young woman’s fate. Subjective evaluations of “behavior and conduct” produced dire outcomes. The Women’s Court was created to address matters of sexual delinquency and it had the highest rate of conviction of all New York City courts. Not surprisingly, black women made up a significant percentage of those convicted” (Hartman Wayward Lives 221).

Only young women were adjudged wayward under these statutes (between the years 1882–1925). The intent of the legislation was to police and regulate sexual offenses without the ‘stigma of the conviction of crime.’ Young women’s sexual activity, it was believed, led ‘directly to the entrance of the minor upon a career of prostitution.’ Yet such ‘protective measures’ served only to criminalize young black women and make them even more vulnerable to state violence” (Hartman Wayward Lives 222).

V. Billie Holiday

Note that the word “Infectious” is checked, and the “Sentence” is 100 days hospitalization.


The Library of Congress – [Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s