This has been a sad week for those of us who read, study and care about political philosophy. That’s because Charles W. Mills, a U.K.-born and Jamaica-raised philosopher whose life’s work was the interrogation and critique of the foundations of liberalism, died on Monday.
Throughout his long and fruitful career, Mills worked to show how, despite its pretenses to universalism, liberalism as a political tradition and philosophy has historically been strongly biased toward the material interests of white people and white polities to the detriment of nonwhite peoples and nonwhite polities. Put another way, Mills sought to answer the question posed by the great English literary critic and poet Samuel Johnson on the eve of the American Revolution, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
Mills’s most famous work, “The Racial Contract,” published in 1997, is both an addition to and critique of the social contract tradition within Western political theory. It is an addition in that Mills, following the classic contractarians — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant — attempts to use the conceit of a social contract to “explain the actual genesis of the society and the state, the way society is structured, the way the government functions, and people’s moral psychology.”
Mills shows how those classic contractarian theories were built on an assumption of white racial domination, a racial contract, so to speak. “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today,” he announces at the very start of the book. And the “racial contract,” he explains, “establishes a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridical system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom.”
The purpose of this state? “To maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites.”
Mills did not think this emerged out of some primordial prejudice or inherent fault, but out of the particular circumstances of European conquest from the 15th century onward. Having established systems of exploitation and expropriation from Africa to the Americas and beyond, European elites had to justify it.
In “The Racial Contract,” Mills moves step by step to show how Enlightenment liberalism and the thinkers who made it took racial domination for granted. And how that assumption of white supremacy shaped their theories of the “universal.”
If Mills had written only “The Racial Contract,” he would still be a towering figure in modern political philosophy. But his work goes well beyond that particular book. In “Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race,” he tackles the profound whiteness of philosophy as a discipline and shows how this has shaped its fundamental concerns and interests. “Without even recognizing that it is doing so,” Mills writes, “Western philosophy abstracts away from what has been the central feature of the lives of Africans transported against their will to the Americas: the denial of black humanity and the reactive, defiant assertion of it.”
In “From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism,” Mills traced his attraction to and departure from Marxism and offered powerful analyses of key Marxist concepts as well as compelling arguments for why, for example, “race” has to be understood as a “material” part of the structure of Western society: “Insofar as whiteness tendentially underwrites the division of labor and the allocation of resources, with correspondingly enhanced socioeconomic life chances for one’s white self and one’s white children — it is clearly ‘material’ in the classic economic sense, and it should have been long since recognized as such.”
And in his last book, “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” Mills offered views on everything from the nature of race — “a social materiality rooted in the relation between the individual body and the body politic” — to the very project of “ideal theory” itself, pushing philosophers to engage more with society as it actually exists, to attend the details of modern life and to show how their theorizing relates to the real problems of real people.
What stands out about Mills is that his critique of liberalism did not mean an abandonment or rejection of the tradition. Instead, Mills sought to incorporate the insights of various Western radicalisms — specifically Marxism, feminism and Black radicalism — to forge a liberalism that could live up to its claims to universalism. “In future work,” he wrote at the end of his last book, “I hope to develop in greater detail this project of articulating a black radical liberalism that is both true to the (idealized) liberal tradition, the liberalism that should have been, and respectful of the black diasporic experience in modernity, victims of the liberalism that actually was and is.”
I never met Mills, but his work — which I discovered in the first years of my journalism career — has had a profound impact on my worldview and my thinking. My understanding of race as a structural concern, my preoccupation with the relationship between race and capitalism, my interest in the way race shapes moral psychology — all of these come from reading Mills, even as I have branched out from his work and even come to disagree with some of his conclusions. I had always told myself that I would take the time to reach out to him, and I deeply regret that I’ll never have the opportunity.
The best way to honor his work, I think, is to read it, to engage with it, and to take seriously his desire to dismantle the racial contract and relegate its influence to the past.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on the self-destructive behavior of supposedly moderate Democrats, who against all evidence believe they will somehow escape unscathed if they sink President Biden’s agenda.
My Friday column was on the John Eastman memo, a written plan to overturn the 2020 election and end American constitutional democracy.
Patrick Wyman on the American gentry in The Atlantic.
Michael Azerrad on his time with Kurt Cobain in The New Yorker.
L.V. Anderson on Dan Savage in Slate magazine.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer on the legacies of Occupy Wall Street for Dissent magazine.
Vincent Garton on the political theory of the Chinese thinker Jiang Shigong in Palladium magazine.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay on photography, exploitation and ownership in the Boston Review.
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Photo of the Week
About four years ago I went down to Alabama to first cover the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative memorial to the victims of lynching, and then later to cover the special election between Roy Moore and Doug Jones for a U.S. Senate seat. I spent a lot of time taking photos, and this was one of my favorites. It’s from an older part of Birmingham, one of the formerly independent towns that was incorporated into the city itself. I took it at evening golden hour, hence the great light and punchy colors. The institute has since opened another museum that I hope to visit. When I do, I’ll be sure to bring my camera.
Now Eating: Charleston Red Rice
Had a craving for a real Southern dinner this week, so I made a spread that included this Charleston Red Rice as the centerpiece. The recipe is straightforward, if a little involved. For the rice, you’ll want to find some Carolina Gold. If that’s not available, basmati rice will work too. The best way to prepare rice is to rinse it in changes of water (or until the water begins to run clear) and then soak it for at least 30 minutes. I learned the technique from one of the many Indian cookbooks I have on hand, and it has served me well. The recipe calls for bacon and chicken stock, but if you want to make it vegan, just substitute water for stock, use olive oil to sauté the vegetables and add a healthy amount of smoked paprika along with everything else. The recipe comes from NYT Cooking.
4 thick-cut bacon slices
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1 teaspoon kosher sea salt (adjust as necessary; I used about ½ teaspoon of salt and it was fine)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups long-grain rice
1 14-ounce can tomato purée (I always just buy whole canned tomatoes and purée them myself)
1½ cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (try to use one without salt)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
pinch of ground cayenne
parsley leaves, for garnish
Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
In a large (12-inch) heavy skillet over medium heat, fry the bacon until crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the bacon to paper towels to drain, leaving behind just 2 tablespoons of bacon fat. Crumble the bacon and set aside.
In the same skillet, add the chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and salt, and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, another 30 seconds.
To the skillet, add the rinsed rice. Stir and toast the rice for 30 seconds. Add the crumbled bacon, tomato purée, stock, hot sauce, Cajun seasoning, sugar, pepper and cayenne.
Bring the rice and vegetables to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt if needed.
Carefully transfer ingredients to the greased baking dish. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake until the rice is tender, about 40 to 50 minutes. Check the rice after about 30 minutes to make sure all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. (If it’s too dry or not cooked all the way through, add a few tablespoons of water or stock at a time, if necessary, and cook a little longer.) Fluff with a fork before serving and garnish with parsley leaves.