The Precedent of Black Exploitation in Derrick Bell's "Space Traders."

Date of Event



The Precedent of Black Exploitation in Derrick Bell's "Space Traders."

Brief Description

Aliens visit America with an offer to solve all of America's most pressing problems in exchange for all of their Black people. Americans are exposed for how they truly and honestly see Black people, as something to be traded rather than being human beings. Even the president thinks of the election ramifications rather than the moral implications.

Extended Description

Derrick Bell and his short story “Space Traders” gives a chilling commentary on America, and how “black rights, black interests, black property, even black lives are expendable whenever their sacrifice will further or sustain white needs or preferences”(Bell). The story is set with the bizarre scenario of aliens coming to earth and asking to fix all of America's problems with gold, infinite energy, and restoration of the environment in exchange for all of America's Black people. Confronted with this offer, white America is baffled and intrigued by this offer. While the average reader of this piece might see this narrative as extreme and unrealistic, after looking deeper into how ingrained racism is in American society, this story is much more on the nose than many would admit. Even in current day America, the rich and powerful too often see Black people as a resource rather than human beings.

Slavery and its implications have been systematically ingrained into American society. Black people have been exploited since the beginning of American history, and slavery has not been fully dismantled. Many people talk about slavery like it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, but the truth is that “Over 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in state, federal, and private prisons in the United States, and nearly all able-bodied inmates work in some fashion. While many inmates are employed in maintenance of the prison, a significant number of inmates work to produce goods or perform services for private companies, nonprofit organizations, and state or federal agencies that partner with prisons"(Goodridge 1). Prisons disproportionately incarcerated Black people, pushing them back into exploitation. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative: In America, 39% of people in prison are black, while they only make up 13% of the US population. In addition, 40% of people in prison are white, while white people make up 64% of the US population. (United States Profile)

Even with slavery being technically abolished, the effects of people finding loopholes to keep their hold over Black people has kept the system of oppression in place. "Prison labor in the U.S. started with convict leasing during slavery and has ballooned into a billion dollar industry that is rooted in the racially-skewed nature of excessive incarceration. The abundance and use of prison labor, rather than being challenged by legislators, has been monetized through the sale of cheap labor to companies and state-funded entities, thereby supporting the expense of expanded incarceration and providing a hidden slave labor force” (Goodridge, Julie). With black sacrifice being the precedent in America, it is not hard to believe Derrick Bell when he says Americans would barely hesitate to take the trade, as while slavery has been abolished for some time, many white people still have a feeling of superiority, and ownership over Black people. The idea that whites would be allowed to trade Black people as if they are a commodity, as opposed to nearly any other group in America is telling of the true nature of racism in America. Said best by Derrick Bell in the context of his story, “It is a mark of just how far out of the mainstream Black people are that this proposition is given any serious consideration. Were the “space traders” attracted by and asking to trade any other group, for example white women with red hair and green eyes, a horrified public would order the visitors off the planet without a moment's hesitation. The revulsion would not be less because the number of persons with those physical characteristics are surely fewer than the twenty million black citizens you are ready to condemn to “intergalactic exile" (Bell).

America and its powerful often see Black Americans less as people and more as a resource. The morality of the space traders' offer would not be the thing that worries Americans, but the implications of losing the group of people that they have been using as a scapegoat and source of cheap labor. “Most business leaders understood that Blacks were crucial in stabilizing the economy with its ever-increasing disparity between the incomes of rich and poor” (Bell). Powerful white Americans depend on Black suppression to keep themselves in power.

“Space Traders” lays bare the problem of racism in America, and shows how institutionalized black exploitation is. It is a simple hypothetical that blatantly displays the feelings of ownership many white people hold over Black people to this day. This remnant from America's founding on the backs of slaves still is ingrained into society, and understanding exactly how systems in America have exploited minorities is imperative in dismantling racism. From Prison labor becoming pseudo-slavery, to massive wealth gaps, and disproportionate opportunities for people if different races, Systems all across America need to be dismantled and rebuilt.

Goodridge, Julie, et al. “Prison Labor in the United States: An Investor Perspective.” Mission
Investors Exchange, 30 Oct. 2019,

Bell, Derrick. "Space Traders." Dark Matter: a Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, by Sheree R. Thomas,
Warner, 2001.

“United States Profile.” United States Profile | Prison Policy Initiative,


1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500, United States

Student creator name(s)

Kali Jauregui Morris

Afrofuturism Canon


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