The Racial Contract

Charles W. Mills

This series of posts goes deeper into political theory of race by highlighting some of the key arguments and concepts from philosopher Charles Mills’ book The Racial Contract. In it, Mills argues that global white supremacy is a political system that provides a structure of formal and informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of rights, wealth, opportunity, and burdens. Mills uses a subversive version of the traditional social contract as a rhetorical tool and theoretical method for understanding racial domination. Because many of us are familiar with actual and metaphorical contracts, and because social contract theory has been so dominant in political theory and American politics, I think this is a productive entry point into critical philosophy of race. Over the next three posts, I’ll focus on these ideas: 1) The Racial Contract as a political and moral nonideal social contract, 2) The Racial Contract as requiring “epistemologies of ignorance,” and 3) the Racial Contract as an exploitation contract. If you want to read along, find copies of the book for sale here. Or a free PDF version here. All intext page number citations will refer to: Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

I know that many of my readers are not philosophers but are interested in philosophical concepts and arguments, and/or are committed to social justice. I hope you find something of interest and usefulness in this series.

The Racial Contract begins like this: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the world what it is today.” Depending on who you follow on Instagram, and coming off of the last three weeks, this might not seem like a radical claim on the surface. But the truth is, you can get through an entire political theory degree without thinking of white supremacy in that way (trust me). Notice, Mills is not saying that white supremacy is a bigoted belief system. He is not saying that white supremacy is merely an ideology. His broadest thesis is that white supremacy is an actualized political system. What does he mean by this, and how does he use the idea of a nonideal contract to support it?

Nonideal Theory

We understand the idea of a contract as an agreement by two or more people to do something. Social contract theory extends this idea by suggesting that unaffiliated humans contract into the establishment of civil society and government. Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, for example, all theorize the formation of political bodies as a willful transition from a “state of nature” to government, based on “the popular consent of individuals taken as equals” (3). What this looks like varies a lot between these thinkers, but they all use the idea of an idealized contract to structure their arguments. One seeming benefit of these kinds of theories, is that they are able to address both descriptive questions and normative questions. That is, they are designed to descriptively explain the origins of society, its structures, its functions, and the moral psychology of its people. They are also concerned with normative questions about the justification of socioeconomic structures and political arrangements, such as the rights and liberties individuals give up or retain through the contract.

Mills explains that he is using the contract model to explain nonideal social arrangements, more in the tradition of Rousseau. In Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau argued that technological advancement, and the creation of the idea of property in nascent societies, created a division between rich and poor that was entrenched by a deceitful and exploitative social contract. Whereas the ideal contract explains how a just society would be formed and regulated, the nonideal contract explains how an unjust society is formed and regulated. Mills writes, “[T]he point of analyzing the nonideal contract is to explain and expose the inequities of the actual nonideal polity and to help us see through the theories and moral justifications offered in defense of them” (5). Mills’ “Racial Contract” is this kind of nonideal theory, one that illustrates how the social contract, both descriptively and normatively, is designed to uphold white supremacy. It “is not a contract between everybody (‘we the people’), but between just the people who count, the people who are really people (‘we the white people’). So it is a Racial Contract” (3).

The Racial Contract is Political and Moral

The political element of social contract theories accounts for the origin, or crucial transformation (10), of government and individuals’ political obligations to it. The moral element of social contract theories establishes the code by which citizens are supposed to regulate their behavior. Like the classic social contract theories, Mills’ nonideal theory contains both of these elements. Here is the pared down version of his analysis.

The Racial Contract is a set of formal and informal agreements between the members of one subset of humans (“white”) with the status of full persons, to categorize the remaining subset of humans (“nonwhite”) as of an inferior moral status. These nonwhite subpersons then have subordinate civil standing in white or white-ruled societies. Because of this subordinated status, the moral and juridical rules that regulate the behavior of whites in their dealings with each other do not apply in dealings with nonwhites. (Or depending on changing historical circumstances, apply only in qualified form.) This is not a contract to which nonwhites can really be a consenting party. “Rather, it is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus objects rather than subjects of the agreement” (12). Nonwhites are excluded because the purpose of the contract is the privileging of whites as a group with respect to nonwhites as a group, so as to establish and maintain access to their bodies, lands, and resources. “All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it” (11).

In the prominent social contract tradition, the natural freedom and equality of all men serves as a moral foundation for the laws that are made once the social contract is ratified. A (supposed) commitment to egalitarianism grounds the liberties, rights, and duties codified by the political contract. Mills argues that in actuality, the “color-coded morality of the Racial Contract restricts the possession of this natural freedom and equality to white men” (16). The Racial Contract is grounded in a moral universe that is divided between persons and racialized subpersons, to whom rights and liberties are not guaranteed. (My fellow philosophers should note that this “partitioned social ontology,” whether its existence is admitted or not, restricts the scope of the grand, “universal” theories of Western moral and political thought. As Mills puts it, “The terms of the Racial Contract set the parameters for white morality as a whole, so that competing Lockean and Kantian contractarian theories of natural rights and duties, or later anticontractarion theories such as nineteenth-century utilitarianism, are all limited by its stipulations” (17). For more of my thoughts on the entanglement of racialized concepts and moral philosophy, see this previous post which also draws on the ideas of Charles Mills.)

So, while white persons are theorized as subject to a social contract that aims toward establishing a just society, this idealization rests on the actual political exclusion of racialized nonwhites. Under the Racial Contract, the moral norms that govern the behavior of whites toward each other do not apply in relations with racialized nonwhites. In addition to its political and moral elements, Mills argues that the Racial Contract has its own peculiar epistemological, or knowledge-establishing, norms as well. On my view, this is one of Mills’ most interesting and impactful points, so I’ll describe that in my next post. The third post in the series will summarize how the Racial Contract is an exploitation contract and a historical reality. Until then, comment with your questions, objections, or reflections!

3 thoughts on “The Racial Contract

  1. I wonder what impoverished white people might make of this. Is there also an argument for an economic contract? Much to think about. Thanks for teasing out this work by Mills.


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