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Charles Mills: The Racial Contract

Charles Mills - the Racial ContractYears ago my friend Ryan told me to read Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, and it feels of central importance in my thinking now. Yet I bought it, and started it and put it down and did not pick it up again until recently. Too dry, too difficult, and contract law?

What an idiot I was.

This is a brilliant book, and perhaps my experience is testament to just how much reading philosophy and theory becomes easier with practice, but also, what an idiot. This would have been so useful for my thesis. But it is never too late. Going back over it, I kept thinking this nails it, this nails all of it. It is hardly a surprise that Charles Mills should be from Jamaica and have studied there, before moving to teach in the US (at present in NY at CUNY). This book is amazing, and my reflections in trying to write my way into grasping its essentials fill at least three posts, starting with the big picture.

It opens:

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination… It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political, are highlighted. (1-2)

Really that’s it in a nutshell, right? There is an under-representation of people of colour in philosophy and women, though the number of women has been increasing and have done more work to reconceptualise the field. Still, it remains very white and male, both cause and effect of the system we live within.

A word here at the beginning about how race is socially constructed, and the way that Mills avoids essentialising whiteness — any race could have done this.

Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. (127)

To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract — ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as the names of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and America’s founding fathers are — but correcting for the fact that:

in its obfuscation of the ugly realities of group power and domination, it is, if unsupplemented, a profoundly misleading account of the way the modern world actually is and came to be. (3)

Mills hopes — and I echo that hope — that the racial contract as a lens can serve to bridge two segregated areas — mainstream ethics and political philosophy with the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth world political thought and their focus on colonialism, imperialism, white settlement and etc. I am consistently frustrated with the way work becomes siloed, insights in one valuable arena of struggle and scholarship are lost, reinvented in another. But that’s another matter.

The Racial Contract is inspired by Carol Pateman’s feminist work The Sexual Contract. Have to read that. Both, go back to the ‘classic contractarians’: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. Names I heard in high school, read in college. Haven’t really thought too much about since then.

Charles Mills is making three simple claims:

the existential claim — white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim — white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system; the methodological claim — as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized as based on a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract. (7)

They sound simple, but let me tell you, it’s a crazy racial rollercoaster from here with loads of ah-ha moments. So. Overview. At least, I do my best.

The racial contract is political, moral, and epistemological. (9)

Big words. I always forget what epistemological means, maybe one day I will remember. I need to start using it daily in sentences, which will make me so popular.

The racial contract sets up a moral hierarchy:

the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. (11)

That’s the key difference there — all whites benefit, even though all whites do not agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. So we best be working to destroy it.

Never forget that the power in this contract sits all in one place:

It is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement. (12)

And this racial contract establishes a racial state:

where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order… Correspondingly, the “consent” expected of white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy, what could be called Whiteness… From the inception, then, race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals. (14)

Yes, hell yes. It is so frustrating to find race over and over again treated as something separate and incidental rather than a fundamental structuring reality. It is brilliant to find clarity in how this racial hierarchy sets the parameters for discussion as a whole. Thus disputes between Locke and Kant are still disputes that sit comfortably within and remain limited by this framework.

So it is fairly astonishing — until you think about it I suppose — that this framework is consistently ignored by whites. ‘[O]ne has an agreement to misinterpret the world’ writes Charles Mills.

Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made. … Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. (18)

I think under Trump we are reaping the rewards of this epistemology of ignorance with a vengeance. Sad.

In classic contractarian thought or Rawls-inspired contracts or even Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract, the focus is on the ideal. Mills argues that the Racial Contract, on the other hand, is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me — it doesn’t matter how many times I read it — is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world. The openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove nonwhites less than human.

This must always be remembered. These things happened at the same time, these philosophies and these conquests, often by the same people. So we also must remember:

European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human. (27)

You have to remember that George Washington was known to the Senecas as “Town Destroyer” (28).

You have to remember that white settler states — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa — were all founded on extermination, displacement and the forcing of indigenous populations onto reservations. Pierre van den Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk democracies to characterise them and the many traits that they share. This was cited, and supported, in The Global Colour Line as well… still, I’ve been meaning to read den Berghe for ages.

Yet none of this has been seen as an appropriate subject for political philosophy?

The fact that this racial structure, clearly political in character, and the struggle against it, equally so, have not for the most part been deemed appropriate subject matter for mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy and the fact that the very concepts hegemonic in the discipline are refractory to an understanding of these realities, reveal at best, a disturbing provincialism and an ahistoricity profoundly at odds with the radically foundational questioning on which philosophy prides itself and, at worst, a complicity with the terms of the Racial Contract itself. (31)

The classic social contract is primarily social/political, but also economic — Locke is all about private property and its protection, right? But it is the economic aspect that is most ‘salient’ in the Racial Contract as it is

calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation…. There are other benefits accruing from the Racial Contract– far greater political influence, cultural hegemony, the psychic payoff that comes from knowing one is a member of the Herrenvolk (what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the wages of whiteness”)–but the bottom line is material advantage. (32-33)

At the same time whites across the spectrum have steadfastly ignored or played down the role of colonial conquest and African slavery in Europe’s development. Mills describes many who have challenged this view like Walter Rodney, writing about the ways in which Europe’s development is built upon the underdevelopment of its colonies. But the mainstream academy has relegated them to the margins, just as it has relegated an understanding of  ‘the centrality of racial exploitation to US economy and the size of its payoff…’ Mills continued:

this very centrality, these very dimensions render the topic taboo, virtually undiscussed in the debates on justice of most white political theory. (39)

Where are we now? A stag described by Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others. One where ‘colourblind’ is the watchword because it is claimed that we are all now equal since the death of a Jim Crow supported by law:

Whereas before it was denied that nonwhites were equal persons, it is now pretended that nonwhite are equal abstract persons who can be fully included in the polity merely by extending the scope of the moral operator, without any fundamental change in the arrangements that have resulted from the previous system of explicit de jure racial privilege. (75)

But all of this is only possible in a world where white supremacy reigns.

But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. (76)

To finish this post, I end with a starting look at what might be required to move forward — I like that this is incorporated, and it resonated strongly with some of Gilroy’s work.

A genuine transcendence of its terms would require, as a preliminary, the acknowledgment of its past and present existence and the social, political, economic, psychological, and moral implications it has had both for its contractors and its victims. (77)

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