‘The Racial Contract’: Interview with Philosopher Charles W. Mills

Charles W. Mills is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Born in the U.K. and raised in Jamaica, he is a leading thinker in social and political philosophy as it centers on class, gender, and race. His first book, “The Racial Contract,” introduces the titular concept: a “contract” that permits white people to violate their own moral principles in dealing with non-white individuals. In his latest book, “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” he argues that the history of denying equal rights to Black people and other people of color racializes liberalism in fundamental ways and that we are still living with this legacy today. 

Harvard Political Review: Some claim that one’s academic work should be a reflection of one’s identity. How has your identity and background shaped your scholarship?

Charles W. Mills: I would say that they have had a major effect, one that I’ve actually written about in autobiographical essays, for example, in my 2016 APA Central Division Dewey Lecture, “The Red and the Black.” Jamaica is a small country of less than 3 million people that has been fundamentally shaped by European imperialism. I’m from a Black-majority society, though as with many other Caribbean and Latin countries, the racial/color conventions are different from the United States. The “one-drop rule” doesn’t hold, and “browns” were originally clearly demarcated from “Blacks” in a three-tiered white/Brown/Black social pyramid. As a “brown” Jamaican, I was — and to a certain extent still am — relatively privileged vis-à-vis the Black majority. So in a sense, in coming to the U.S. to work after I got my PhD in Canada, I was changing race, becoming part of an unambiguously subordinated “Black” American racial group, while equipped with the inherited cultural capital and privilege of my “brown” Jamaican middle-class origins and education.

You’ll appreciate, then, the complexities of this evolving hybrid combination of privilege and disadvantage, insider and outsider status, and its resulting weird epistemic amalgam of insight and obtuseness. I’m not Black American in the sense of having U.S. family origins that go back to slavery. But I’m Black and an American citizen, and I certainly identify with and have tried to support in my work, the long Black American struggle for racial equality and justice.

The U.S. and Jamaica are vastly different in innumerable ways. But what they have in common is that they’re both former slave societies, built on the racial exploitation of African persons. Yet whereas this historical reality is very much part of everyday consciousness in Black-majority Jamaica, it has been suppressed in white-majority America. Hence the hostility to the “1619 Project” and the truths it’s telling, truths that many white Americans still refuse to hear.

In political philosophy specifically, my main research area, it has produced such absurdities as John Rawls’s recommendation in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we should think of society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” whose rules are “designed to advance the good of those taking part in it.” You can imagine my astonishment when I originally encountered this bizarre stipulation in my very first graduate course in political philosophy at the University of Toronto, especially since Jamaica at that time was fiercely caught up in a national debate about the colonial past and its legacy. Slavery? Colonialism? Racism? Indigenous genocide? A tad socially coercive, perhaps? How could these possibly be reconciled with such a theoretical prescription?

I’m still trying, all these years later to understand the mindset that has made such astonishing evasions cognitively possible. By contrast, from the time I started working systematically on race a quarter-century ago, I have argued that we should locate these issues of social justice within the framework of “white supremacy.” One positive epistemic aspect of Donald Trump’s election generally, and this summer’s George Floyd demonstrations specifically, is that such a framework no longer seems as radical as it once would have to mainstream types. Far more Americans of all races, including white Americans, now recognize the centrality of institutionalized racial domination to the country’s formation and development. We just need political philosophy to catch up.

HPR: What current projects are you working on?

CM: My publisher for “The Racial Contract,” Cornell University Press, will be bringing out a new 25th-anniversary edition of the book in 2022 that will also celebrate its attaining the landmark of 50,000 copies sold. I’m also writing up my February 2020 Tanner Lecture, “Theorizing Racial Justice,” that I gave at the University of Michigan for publication in the Tanner Lecture Series. However, my main project will be completing a long-delayed book manuscript, “The White Leviathan: Nonwhite Bodies in the White Body Politic,” for Oxford UP’s new “Critical Philosophy of Race” book series. It will be looking at the racialization of the body politic and the corresponding need for corrective racial justice.

So, given the present heightened national and global consciousness about race and racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, the timing is obviously good for all these projected works, and I hope they will make a useful contribution to the debate. It’s a very exciting time for me professionally, though correspondingly a very busy one.

HPR: Could you lay out your understanding of the “racial contract,” its relation to the “social contract,” and its moral, political, and epistemic dimensions? 

CM: The social contract is a crucial concept in modern Western political theory that’s trying to answer two main questions, one descriptive/political and one normative/moral. We imagine ourselves as free and equal persons in a pre-social, pre-political situation and then reflect on what kind of social institutions and governmental bodies we would “contractually” choose to bring into existence so as to safeguard those freedoms and that equality. The state is then legitimate because it is fulfilling this safeguarding role. So, the “contract” is really a metaphor for the human creation of the socio-political world and how that world should be structured. It’s not literal but a “story” or a “thought-experiment” or, in the words of John Rawls, a “device of representation,” and one that makes consent and equal inclusion foundational. Call it the consensual egalitarian contract. Morally equal human beings looking at the world objectively create polities that represent their interests equally. In principle, it’s a contract we should all be able to endorse.

The “golden age” of social contract theory was 1650 to 1800, which covers the “big four” contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. After that, it suffers a historic decline. But it is then spectacularly revived by Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” and has been thriving ever since. In Rawls’ work, and in the critical literature stimulated by it, the normative question then becomes: What would a society with a perfectly just “basic structure” look like?

HPR: So why then do we need the additional concept of a “racial” contract, and what’s problematic about the Rawlsian project?

CM: The problem is that there’s always been an ambiguity in the contract literature as to whether as a “story” or “metaphor” it’s only projecting an attractive ideal or is also supposed to be representing, albeit in a very abstract way, the historical actuality. We can all agree that society and the polity should have been constructed consensually and inclusively. But since we all know they weren’t, don’t we need a complementary metaphor to capture the real-world side of things?

After all, even in “modern” Western liberal societies, white women continue to be subordinated, while “non-whites” now emerge as a new category of “inferior” humans whose conquest and colonization by the West is regarded as legitimate. Even the white male working class does not get the franchise for hundreds of years.

Clearly, then, the metaphor appropriate for the descriptive realm has to be radically different from that appropriate for the ideal normative realm. It has to highlight domination rather than inclusion. And since in these systems, class and gender domination are rationalized as justifiable, an “epistemology of ignorance” will be a functional part of it, that in crucial respects systematically betrays ideal Enlightenment norms and correspondingly distorts reality. Call it the non-consensual and non-egalitarian domination contract.

So the “racial contract” — like Rousseau’s “class contract” and Pateman’s “sexual contract” — can be thought of as an in-group agreement among the privileged to restrict moral and political equality to themselves, and maintain the subordination as unequals of the out-group (here, people of color). The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had such resonance around the globe demonstrates the extent to which our nominally post-colonial world today is still highly continuous with that one.

What’s problematic about the Rawlsian project, therefore, is that rather than recognizing this central fact about the Western-created world, he assumes consensuality in both the descriptive and normative realms. This Rawlsian evasion is the updated form of the “epistemology of ignorance,” a white ignorance that no longer justifies racial subordination as in the colonial and overtly white supremacist epoch, but erases it. Hence the ludicrous characterization of Western society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.” There is no theorization in his work, indeed there is barely even an acknowledgment, of the reality of racial oppression in Western societies. And this refusal to face reality then undermines his normative project, in the form of the structural exclusion of corrective racial justice.

HPR: Rawls appears to differentiate “ideal theory” (principles of justice for a perfectly just society) from “non-ideal theory.” Wouldn’t principles of corrective racial justice fall under the latter? So couldn’t Rawls just reply that he’s chosen to focus on ideal theory, but that other people can work on extrapolating his principles to cover racial justice, as a matter of non-ideal theory?

CM: That was my original assumption, and my corresponding criticism was to ask why, since Rawls himself emphasized that issues of non-ideal theory were the “pressing and urgent” ones, this challenge had not been taken up by Rawlsians in all the decades since his book first appeared. After all, isn’t racial injustice in the U.S. particularly “pressing and urgent”?

But a year or two ago I had an epiphany that made me rethink my position. I have now concluded that we have been misinterpreting Rawls all along, though the textual evidence has been there from the start. His “cooperative venture for mutual advantage” characterization is really meant not as a definition of society but as a restriction of the kinds of societies to which his principles apply. And these turn out to be, as made explicit in his later work, modern Western liberal societies. So it’s still an absurd depiction, but the precise nature of the absurdity is somewhat different than I had originally assumed. He thought such societies were close enough to being fully just that they fitted the cooperative venture characterization.

So if — as the events of the last few months might just possibly have led you to suspect — the U.S. is indeed a racist society, then the startling implication is that Rawls’s principles, ideal or extrapolated non-ideal, do not apply to the U.S. Rawls was so deeply in the grip of white ignorance about the centrality of racism and white supremacy to the creation of the modern Western world, including the United States, that he excluded racist societies from the ambit of his theory, thereby constructing a theory of social justice inapplicable to his own country! Millions of idealistic, young Americans have started university this fall, and I’m sure that many of them were deeply shocked by Floyd’s killing and the pervasive racial inequities it has revealed in our society. But if they hope to receive guidance from philosophy social justice courses on how to create a more racially just United States, they will get no help from white Rawlsianism. The past half-century has shown that white Rawlsians have had almost no interest in such a project in the first place, and it now turns out, if I’m right, that the apparatus is structurally recalcitrant to such an attempted appropriation anyway.

HPR: In what ways would you view your academic scholarship as a form of activism? What can the Black Lives Matter movement take away from your work? What should be the role of philosophers at this critical juncture in time?

CM: The real credit for the current heightened awareness of racial injustice obviously has to go to the people who have been organizing out in the real, non-academic world for years. They’re the true heroes of this moment. But if you think of the anti-racist struggle as being waged on multiple fronts and in multiple arenas, given the deep entrenchment of white racial domination across the society at large, then professors do have a role to play. I would certainly hope that my academic scholarship over the years has had some effect, even if a very small one, in helping to raise people’s consciousness about issues of race and racial injustice. But let’s face it, this would be a very comfortable kind of “activism,” if it even deserves the name!

So-called “public” philosophy, taking a stand on and offering philosophical insight into current issues, is increasingly respectable, so that’s one obvious option. Cornel West has been doing this for the four decades of his career, in keeping with the Deweyan conception of the discipline. But it’s noteworthy that never in those forty years has he worked in a philosophy department, precisely because he did not see it as providing room for such an engagement. Thankfully, I believe things are now beginning to change somewhat, in significant measure because of pressure from the groups historically marginalized in the profession. But white women have made far greater progress than people of color in the struggle for diversification. Blacks, for example, make up only one percent of the profession. 

What can philosophers do with respect to race specifically? Well, there is now far more work in critical philosophy of race than when I graduated decades ago — the term didn’t even exist then — so the overwhelmingly white-majority professoriate should be trying to incorporate such material into their courses. The horizon-expanding question to ask yourself is: how could race be brought into courses on ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, social epistemology, philosophy of language, political philosophy, phenomenology and existentialism, the history of philosophy, and so forth?

Consider again my own area of specialization, political philosophy. The standard narrative in the field is that the dominant Anglo-American tradition was moribund by the 1950s, and was only revived by the 1971 publication of Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice.” Rawls is given the credit both for resurrecting Anglo-American political philosophy and reorienting its normative focus from the issue of our political obligation to the state to the issue of the justice of society’s basic structure. But this story is completely false, and is a wonderful example of what I suggested above is the “conceptual” whiteness of philosophy.

Well over a century before Rawls, African American political theorists had initiated a tradition founded on the condemnation of the racial injustice of the United States: David Walker, Maria Stewart, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and many others. These folks were English-speaking and citizens of the United States. So here’s the question: why are they completely excluded from the official “Anglo-American” origins story? And the unavoidable answer is that the tradition is tacitly being defined as white: “Anglo-American” really means “white people!”

So we need a reconceptualization of the field that would take seriously the decades of decolonial and anti-Eurocentric critique. And in that way, we could reshape the discipline to be more reflective of the demography and the concerns of the multiracial and multicultural nation as a whole. Surely the Republican Party should not be the model for philosophy?

HPR: Finally, is today a turning point for American democracy, or is history repeating itself? How do you see the Racial Contract now, in the light of this summer’s massive protests? And as a Jamaican American, what do you think of the choice of Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee?

CM: On straight nationalist grounds, I’m naturally delighted and happy also that a woman of color has attained such a position, given the long history of exclusion of those so doubly subordinated. It’s great that she is being claimed both by the Black and the Indian communities.

The demonstrations over unjustified police killings and structural racism more broadly have been unprecedented in size, duration, national scope, and their high degree of white participation. That has indeed been inspirational. But in trying to understand race in the U.S., it’s really important not to get caught up in the moment, and to maintain a historical perspective on the racial longue durée. After all, there have been many such moments before: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War Amendments, the Brown Supreme Court decision, the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s, and, most recently of course, Barack Obama’s 2008 election.

While the symbolic significance of a female Black/Asian vice president will be huge, we must of course recall that we did recently have two terms of a Black president. And it’s not the case that in those eight years the wealth gap was closed, residential and educational segregation ended, disproportionate police killings of Black and Brown Americans stopped, or anything like that. That’s precisely what people are still protesting! The symbolic is important, and I’m all for the removal of Confederate flags and monuments, the renaming of institutions, the abolition of mock-Native American team names, and so forth. But that’s the easy part. There’s also, and more importantly, the substantive.

Whatever my criticisms of Rawls, his concept of the basic structure is a very valuable contribution to political philosophy, even if its potential is unrealized in his hands and those of his disciples. The real question for us should be, as I suggested above: How do we dismantle a racialized basic structure? This will require much more of white Americans than going to the Floyd demonstrations, buying a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, and conscientiously reading some of the numerous books on race and racism that have zoomed on to The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. The pandemic is still with us, and its full disastrous economic impact has yet to fully manifest itself. Tearing up the racial contract will demand a project of national reconstruction, the allocation of whose burdens will need to recognize the problems tens of millions of poor, working-class, and unemployed white Americans are facing also. My own research focus over most of my career has been on race, as indicated, but that does not mean I am not sensitive to the many other axes of social injustice. In other words, to gain white support, racial justice will need to be embedded in a larger project of class and gender justice, bringing together moral imperatives and group interests, so as to get rid of the combined “domination contract.” Whether such a radical political vision can be articulated so as to be attractive to the white majority, and whether it can be achieved, remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Photo by Gareth Smit (2014).

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