‘The Racial Contract’ by Professor Charles Mills Retains Its Influence After More Than Two Decades

Charles Mills and his book, "The Racial Contract" (Photo: Sam Alcoff)

When Distinguished Professor Charles W. Mills (Philosophy) received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1985, critical philosophy of race wasn’t yet a term, much less a field of scholarship. Even in 1997, when his book The Racial Contract came out, political theory texts didn’t mention the term white supremacy. His book helped change both of those things. 

More than 20 years after its publication, The Racial Contract remains a seminal philosophy text, and both the book and Mills are drawing renewed attention. Last month, the American Political Science Association chose Mills as the recipient of its biennial Benjamin E. Lippincott Award, which honors a work of exceptional quality by a living political theorist that is still considered significant 15 or more years after its first publication. More than 50,000 copies of the book have sold since 1997, and Cornell University Press plans to issue a 25th anniversary edition in 2022. 

An extended essay, the book received critical praise when it was published at the turn of the 21st century, pre-9/11, when Bill Clinton was president. Reviewers called it a significant and compelling work and an ambitious little book that “seeks to place race at the very center of political theory.” 

In the book’s introduction, Mills writes, “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” Mills sets out to create a framework for understanding racism, or white supremacy, as a power structure, one that allows white people to act against their own moral principles. In so doing, he challenges the dominant assumptions of white political philosophy, which at the time, he wrote, ignored race and racism.

Last October, following the massive Black Lives Matters protests and the outcry over the violent killings of unarmed Black women and men, such as George Floyd, Mills spoke to the Harvard Political Review about The Racial Contract and its continued relevance. 

The racial contract, Mills explained, “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).”

Mills was asked how he viewed the racial contract in 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests and the selection of Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. He observed that it is still at the base of society’s “racialized basic structure.” 

“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,” Mills said. “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.”

In February 2020, Mills presented “Theorizing Racial Justice” as the invited lecture for the prestigious Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan. He is now completing his next book, The White Leviathan: Nonwhite Bodies in the White Body Politic, for Oxford University Press’ new critical philosophy of race book series. 

In his conversation with the Harvard Political Review, Mills advised fellow philosophers on how they can address race in their scholarship and teaching.

"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?” he said. 

Submitted on: JUL 14, 2021

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