Violence, Coercion and Struggle in Mills’ Racial Contract

Charles Mills the Racial ContractA final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:

In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)

You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:

The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)

Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?

There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)

This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…

But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)

That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:

Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)

Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that

Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)

There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.

It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how

the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)

This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.

By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)

He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:

The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract.  (96)

Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:

a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.

b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing

c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering.  (95)

It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of  ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural  foundations, well, that takes some work.

Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)

Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:

There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…

Second, understanding the importance of positionality:

The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)

Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.

There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.

By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)

We have a choice.

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