Charles W Mills: Philosopher who used his work to challenge white supremacy

Mills was an incisive critic of western political theory who believed that modern philosophy had nothing to say about the subjugation and brutalisation of people of colour

Harrison Smith
Tuesday 12 October 2021 00:01
<p>Mills was best known for his incendiary debut work ‘The Racial Contract’</p>

Mills was best known for his incendiary debut work ‘The Racial Contract’

Charles W Mills, a social and political philosopher who sought to rethink western liberalism, arguing that white supremacy undergirded the modern world and that philosophy had ignored fundamental issues of race and justice, has died aged 70.

A London native who grew up in Jamaica, studied philosophy in Canada and taught for decades in the United States, Mills was an incisive critic of western political theory, pushing philosophers to engage with the world as it is rather than how they wished or imagined it to be. In particular, he noted that his overwhelmingly white field seemed to have little to say about the subjugation and brutalisation of people of colour.

“I like to think of Mills as our black Socrates,” fellow philosopher Christopher Lebron wrote in a 2018 article for the Nation, “roaming the philosophical streets, asking people why they think a society like ours, stained by a history of racial horrors, is not more ashamed of itself, and why its leading minds do not make that shame a motivating force in the struggle for a more just society.”

Mills was best known for his first book, The Racial Contract (1997), a straightforward but incendiary extended essay. He argued that the social contract, a political concept that emerged during the Enlightenment to explain how people consent to surrender some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of other rights, was in fact a racial contract, founded on an assumption of white dominance and created at a time when Europeans were enslaving people of colour.

“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,” he wrote in the book’s opening lines. Indeed, he added, an undergraduate could learn about aristocracy, socialism, libertarianism and the like while reading thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls and Nozick – but “there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years”.

Mills used the term to refer not only to Klan rallies and the enslavement of black people, but to the transfer of wealth and opportunities from people of colour more broadly. He was less concerned with issues of personal prejudice than in the way race shaped politics, society and the academy itself, where his thesis shocked many of his colleagues.

“It was so provocative, so deviant from the conventional mainstream philosophical wisdom, that even now, nearly a quarter-century later, it is still beyond the pale of acceptance,” he told the Nation in January. “White supremacy,” he added, was “a taboo phrase”, describing “a reality that can no longer be admitted”.

Mills’s friend and fellow philosopher Falguni Sheth said that as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in the 1990s, she was discouraged from studying race by professors who told her it was “not a real topic for philosophy”.

Reading Mills “completely changed my world,” she said, “because I suddenly felt like there was a way to talk about the thing that we were prohibited from talking about. We could talk about race in a serious, philosophical way, but also in a way that shed insight on this liberal myth that we were all fine and equal, and that race was a thing of the past.”

In a tribute to Mills, University of Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan said that his work possessed “an unusual combination of rigour and daring”, and offered a liberating new tool set that philosophers could use to address issues of race, gender and class. His writing, she added, made people “free to philosophise in a way that, to paraphrase Mills’s first intellectual hero Marx, seeks not merely to describe the world, but to transform it.”

Charles Wade Mills was born on 3 January 1951, in London, where his Jamaican parents were graduate students. The family soon moved to Kingston, the Jamaican capital, where Mills was introduced to politics at a young age.

His father, a government professor at the University of the West Indies, chaired a nonpartisan committee to overhaul Jamaica’s electoral system in the 1970s; his mother, who trained as a nurse, became the head of the country’s YWCA. An uncle also served as Jamaica’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Mills turned to philosophy in the 1970s, during a period of growing political violence in Jamaica, but only after he got a degree in physics. “Charles used to joke that physics required actual experiments, that could be tested, whereas philosophy only has thought experiments, with less rigorous testing,” his friend Linda Martín Alcoff, a CUNY Graduate Centre colleague, said.

After graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1971, he taught physics at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Kingston and then enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he received a master’s degree in 1976 and a doctorate in 1985.

He taught at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University, where he was on the faculty for a decade before coming to the CUNY Graduate Centre. By then, he had published books including Contract and Domination (2007), in which he partnered with feminist scholar Carole Pateman to explore the intersection of race, gender and power.

His marriage to Elle Olliviere ended in divorce. Survivors include a brother.

As a writer, Mills became known for a straightforward, witty prose style with a light touch that came out in articles such as “Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black Women?”, which used interracial marriage as a way to explore issues of loyalty and community, and in an unpublished article that argued that there was a coded hierarchy of Europeans in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with Scandinavians (elves) at the top and southern Europeans (orcs) at the bottom.

“I read the paper with delicious pleasure,” his former colleague Robert Paul Wolff recalled in a blog post, “and asked Charles, after I had gotten to know him, why he had never published it. He said he was afraid that if it appeared under his name it would hurt his career.”

In his last book, Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), Mills examined the way in which some white people refused to recognise the reality of racial exploitation, and looked ahead to the possibility of a new, “deracialised” liberalism that acknowledged the history of white supremacy.

Arguing that liberalism could be remade rather than thrown out altogether, he assigned his students to read political theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant in addition to their modern critics.

Not all of his colleagues appreciated his efforts.

“They say, ‘Why are you trying to keep this tradition alive? We should jettison this whole way of doing political philosophy and basically start anew,’” he told the Atlantic earlier this year. But Mills disagreed, arguing that liberal and democratic societies were open to change, absorbing new ideas over time. “There is,” he said, “a dynamism inside liberalism that they miss.”

Charles W Mills, philosopher, born 3 January 1951, died 20 September 2021

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