Tag Archives: geography

Charles Mills: Race and Space in the Racial Contract

Given how much my work focuses on the relationship between race and space, I loved it when this appeared in Charles Mills’ theorisation of the Racial Contract.

The norming of space is partially done in terms of the racing of space, the depiction of space as dominated by individuals (whether persons or subpersons) of a certain race. At the same time, the norming of the individual is achieved by spacing it, that is, representing it as imprinted with the characteristics of a certain kind of space. So this is a mutually supporting characterization that, for subpersons, becomes a circular inditcment: “You are what you are in part because you originate from a certain kind of space, and that space has those properties in part because it is inhabited by creatures like yourself. (42)

There is so much here to unpack — this connection between our perceptions of a person and the place they are from. We all know how we judge and are judged. For many, it is a constant battle to escape the violence of such judgments, rooted in a dark and violent past. Rooted in Colonialism, conquest, genocide.

The Racial Contract in its early preconquest versions must necessarily involve the pejorative characterization of the spaces that need taming, the spaces in which the racial polities are eventually going to be constructed. … Creating the civil and the political here thus requires an active spatial struggle (this space is resistant) against the savage and the barbaric, an advancing of the frontier against opposition, a Europeanization of the world. (43)

Conquest is necessarily a struggle over land and geography, and demands a spatial understanding of the world. The understanding created through years of colonialism was one of Europe as civilised, deserving to conquer (because if it didn’t advance it would surely be forced to retreat before brutal hordes) the rest of the savage world.

The battle against this savagery is in a  sense permanent as long as the savages continue to exist… So it is not merely that space is normatively characterized on the macrolevel before conquest and colonial settlement, but that even afterward, on the local level, there are divisions, the European city and the Native Quarter, Whitetown and Niggertown/Darktown, suburb and inner city. (47)

You see, we live with these divisions still.

Mills quotes David Theo Goldberg:

“Power in the polis, and this is especially true of racialized power, reflects and refines the spatial relations of its inhabitants.”

Mills continues:

Part of the purpose of the color line/apartheid/jim crow is to maintain these spaces in their place, to have the checkerboard of virtue and vice, light and dark space, ours and theirs, clearly demarcated so that the human geography prescribed by the Racial Contract can be preserved.

This echoes Fanon’s observations of colonial world cut in two, the segregation that still exists in our cities, the divisions between deserving and undeserving that echo an early Christian world of  vice and virtue alongside an emergent/protestant ethic of settlement and industry. The land should belong to white’s because they are the only ones who can make it fruitful. And the end result:

Since the Racial Contract links space with race and race with personhood, the white raced space of the polity is in a sense the geographical locus of the polity proper. (50)

Over and over again in racist texts is this idea of America as white, of citizens as white. Whites fought to defend this idea, and to live amongst their own (See Sugrue, Hirsch, Meyer and so many more).

Thus one of the interesting consequences of the Racial Contract is that the political space of the polity is not coextensive with its geographical space. In entering these (dark) spaces, one is entering a region normatively discontinuous with white political space, where the rules are different in ways ranging from differential funding (school resources, garbage collection, infrastructural repair) to the absence of police protection. (51)

Finally, there is the microspace of the body itself… The black body. The crazy amounts of fear and hate whites have invested in the skin of others. Mills draws a historical distinction between the old regime of Christian thought in which other races were still ‘salvageable’ and could still be saved until this shifted:

The new secular category of race, by contrast, which gradually crystallized over a century or so, had the virtue of permanency over any given individual’s lifetime. …

For the first time ‘slavery acquired a color. But for the colonial project in general, personhood would be raced, hence the concept of “subject races.” The crucial conceptual divide is between whites and nonwhites, persons and subpersons, though once this central cut has been made, other internal distinctions are possible… (57)

It is the Racial Contract that ‘constructs’ race as a group identity. Makes whiteness the norm. Toni Morrison has long pointed out that ‘Americanness’ has long meant whiteness:

deviation from which unfits one for full personhood and full membership in the polity. (54)

All of this, yet race has not been seen as central — and I know I explored this in the first post on the matter, particularly in relation to political theory and philosophy. Yet it is too often absent from geography too. I feel like this acknowledgment of what always seems to go unquestioned cannot be repeated enough:

Insofar as race is addressed at all within mainstream moral and political philosophy, it is usually treated in a  footnote as a regrettable deviation from the ideal. But treating it in this way makes it seem contingent, accidental, residual, removes it from our understanding. Race is made to seem marginal when in fact race has been central. … we should say frankly that  for whites the Racial Contract represented the ideal, and what is involved is not deviation from the (fictive) norm but adherence to the actual norm. (56)

It cannot be repeated enough that America has always been  a white supremacist state:

for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite racial subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing

It is built, like European conquest was built, on some strong philosophical foundations. Kant — I never though of Kant as the modern father of race, but Mills makes a good case for it. I’d never heard of Kant’s 1775 essay  on ‘The Different Races of Mankind’, but there it is, for me to find and read. In the meantime, Mills writes:

The famous theorist of personhood is also the theorist of subpersonhood…as Eze points out, Kant taught anthropology and physical geography for forty years, and his philosophical work really has to be read in conjunction with these lectures to understand how racialized his views on moral character were. (70)

Of course, I have never heard of these lectures. Mills summarises some of Kant’s opinions, such as his feeling that there is

some hope for Asians, though they lack the ability to develop abstract concepts; the innately idle Africans can at least be educated as servants and slaves through the instruction of a split-bamboo cane (Kant gives some useful advice on how to beat Negroes efficiently); and the wretched Native Americans are just hopeless, and cannot be educated at all. (71)

Jesus. I thought I was getting to old and well-read for those moments when things you thought you knew give a great shake and fall.

So to return briefly to the differences between contracts: the social contract is always discussed and seen as a concrete event that happened at a specific time — or at least, that is how it is theorised. It’s important to understand that the Racial Contract actually exists, its construction can be witnessed over time, and by contrast to this once-upon-a-time moment theorised for the social contract,

…the Racial Contract is continually being rewritten to create different forms of the racial policy. (72)

This reminds me so much of Stuart Hall’s continual focus on the ‘work’ that racism is currently performing at any conjuncture — the importance of understanding how things shift and change to help those in power and privilege maintain that power and privilege. Two ways of theorising the same insight.

So in bringing this to bear on our history we see it transform:

In the first period, the period of de jure white supremacy, the Racial Contract was explicit, the characteristic instantiations — the expropriation contract, the slave contract, the colonial contract– making it clear that whites were the privileged race and the egalitarian social contract applied only to them.

In the second period, on the other hand, the Racial Contract has written itself out of formal existence. The scope of the terms in the social contract has been formally extended to apply to everyone, so that “persons” is no longer coextensive with “whites.”

But tensions remain ‘between continuing de facto white privilege and this formal extension of rights… a crucial manifestation is simply the failure to ask certain questions, taking for granted a status quo… (73)

This reminds me of the silences written about by Trouillot. These periodisations have been noted by Manning Marable, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West and others. These things seem so obvious, depending on where you stand.

To bring it back more fully to space, to geography, we leave the sphere of the nation and the body to look at the globe as a whole.

Globally, the Racial Contract effects a final paradoxical norming and racing of space, a writing out of the polity of certain spaces as … irrevalent. (74)

He quotes Frederick Jameson

Colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country…Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole. (‘Modernism and Imperialism’, 1990)

Out of sight, out of mind and protection from knowledge of spatial exploitation becomes just another privilege enjoyed by those in the privileged spaces of the privileged nations.

So much here, such a short book.

[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]