Tag Archives: racial contract

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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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.]

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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.]

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