Epistemologies of Ignorance

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. In my last post, I described how Mills uses a nonideal social contract as a way to understand the political and moral exclusions of white supremacy. If you haven’t read that post yet, start there and come back! If you want to read Mills’ book for yourself, 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.

Polity as Epistemic Community

Like the canonical social contract theories, Mills’ theorization of the Racial Contract contains both political and moral elements. It accounts for the origin, or crucial transformation, of government and individuals’ obligations to it. And it outlines the norms by which citizens are supposed to regulate their behavior. Traditional social contract theories describe the crucial transformation as the move from the “state of nature” to “civil society,” from natural man to political man. Mills argues that we can understand the global dominance of white supremacy as rooted in the partitioning of the human population into “white” and “nonwhite” men. The subset of nonwhite is “of a different and inferior moral status, subpersons, so that they have subordinate civil standing” (11). The Racial Contract is a contract between white persons over nonwhites, defined as subpersons, to whom the moral norms recognizing freedom, equality, and dignity do not apply.

Additionally, the Racial Contract has a crucial epistemological element. Epistemology is the study of what we know, how we know it, and how we know that we know it. Mills argues that the Racial Contract not only prescribes moral norms, it also prescribes “norms of cognition” for its signatories (11). He suggests that an epistemological standard is latent in traditional contractarian theories that rely on man’s “natural faculties” to know “they way things objectively are and what is objectively good and bad about them” (17). So, for example, Locke invokes the light of reason implanted in man by God. Hobbes relies on the ability of self-interested individuals to assess the optimal course of action for prudential cooperation. In both cases, there is an “idealized consensus about cognitive norms” (17), or what counts as a correct interpretation of the world, that amounts to a contract of sorts. For agreeing to this view, one is granted full standing in society; one’s interpretations, and hence words and actions, can be trusted. The social contract establishes not only a sociopolitical arrangement, but an epistemic community as well.

Epistemologies of Ignorance

Mills argues that the central characteristic of white supremacy’s epistemological standard is not natural reason but manufactured ignorance. This ignorance is in no way accidental, but is prescribed by the terms of the Racial Contract. African enslavement and white settler ideologies require conceptual erasure of staggering magnitude. Erasure of individual humanity, of social histories in place, of complexity, and of suffering. Fundamentally, racialization itself relies on the fiction of human superiority and inferiority as tethered to shifting phenotypical/genealogical/cultural criteria. But this fiction is created by the powerful to maintain their power. So, what counts as a correct interpretation of the world, the epistemic view required by the Racial Contract, is a purposeful misinterpretation. “One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular” (18). Evasion and self-deception become the epistemic norms that are required to sustain the Racial Contract and the sociopolitical arrangements it codifies.  As Mills writes, “white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement” (19).

Under the Racial Contract, then, white epistemic communities are maintained by cognitive dysfunctions that are socially and politically functional. The ironic outcome of the epistemic requirements of the Racial Contract is that, in general, whites will be unable to understand the world that they have made (18). Epistemologies of ignorance preclude self-awareness and self-transparency, a genuine understanding of social realities, and an honest assessment of the moral value of one’s own actions and complicities. Mills writes:

“Racism and racially structured discrimination have not been deviations from the norm; they have been the norm…in the sense of being formally codified, written down and proclaimed as such. From this perspective, the Racial Contract has underwritten the social contract, so that duties, rights, and liberties have routinely been assigned on a racially differentiated basis. To understand the actual moral practice of past and present, one needs not merely the standard abstract discussions of, say, the conflicts in people’s consciences between self-interest and empathy with others but a frank appreciation of 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 behavior patterns as racist, so that apart from questions of motivation and bad faith they will be morally handicapped simply from the conceptual point of view in seeing and doing the right thing” (93).

To me, the identification of racialized epistemologies of ignorance is one of Mills’ most impactful insights. Not only does it wield significant explanatory power within Mills’ own theory, but it provides a call to action and identifies philosophy as playing an important role in answering that call. We are called to rigorously identify these misinterpretations and redress the injustices and harms that they are used to maintain. Philosophers are called to examine seemingly race- and gender-neutral positions for inherent conceptual biases.

It seems that the events of the last month have been a catalyst for many white people in terms of awareness of their ignorance, and awareness of all of the ways that they remain ignorant of their own ignorance. But the cognitive difficulties that Mills identifies are so engrained that there is much to overcome in terms of identifying racist behavior patterns and social structures. Resistance to this identification is rampant and recurring because white supremacy continues to benefit white authority. My final post in this series will describe how the Racial Contract is an exploitation contract and a historical reality. Check back soon!

7 thoughts on “Epistemologies of Ignorance

  1. Anne,
    I like a philosopher named Thomas Jefferson who wrote in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
    If asked what America is all about, most people would quote this and these words are what have attracted more Africans to our shores as immigrants that were brought here against their will as slaves. These words are universally loved except by the current crop of radical Marxists running Black Lives Matters and Antifa.
    Have we been able to live up to the words of the Declaration? No. We are all flawed and imperfect vessels, but a huge number of citizens in this country certainly try to.
    With Mr. Mills way of thinking, if you are a white Eurocentric human and you think that white Eurocentric people are superior to any other people, you are a racist. If you are a white Eurocentric human and you think all people are equally children of God and that you accept every human as your brother, you are still a racist. WHERE IS GRACE?
    The leaders of Antifa and Black Lives Matters are interested in destroying the USA and replacing it with a totalitarian government run by themselves. Life will not be better under these people and they do not deserve our support.
    Gary Glockhoff
    I love you.


    1. Gary, thank you for taking the time to read the blog and engage with the ideas. I truly appreciate it!

      I love the power and promise of Thomas Jefferson’s words. I am truly moved by them. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that “men” had a universal scope when they were written. I think that we can acknowledge the historical and present truth of white supremacy and at the same time use Jefferson’s ideal as a guiding light. But it takes humility, nuance, and dialogue. These can be hard to come by right now.
      I think that Mills is actually quite careful to talk about social and political structures, conceptual and epistemological frameworks, as racist rather than using it as a dialogue-ending, name-calling trope. We live in a world that was built by white supremacy. Enslavement and colonial genocide are facts. The conceptual justifications for these practices are built into our cities, laws, and education, and it takes ongoing, terrifically hard work to redress them. Mills is careful to say that while all white people are beneficiaries of the Racial Contract (under which nonwhites are denied full personhood), not all whites are signatories to the contract. We can reject its falsehoods. In order to do so, we have to overcome a lot of ignorance. We have to unlearn and relearn. Again, humility and lack of defensiveness are the moral stances required to do this unlearning and new learning. I think that this is where grace comes in.

      I support Black Lives Matter. I am antifascist. I believe in equity. I love you too.



      1. I’m not unaware that when these words of Thomas Jefferson were written that slavery existed in a system created by England and it was the only economic means for southern agriculture to work. But many northerners were appalled by the institution and railed against it from the beginning. They had to make compromises to form a nation and survive a revolution against the strongest nation in the world at the time.
        I believe the words were written with the knowledge that in the future the country would eliminate slavery and that then the words would pertain to all. Lincoln saw the unfairness and evil of chattel slavery at a young age and his election was all about the elimination of slavery. His unfortunate assassination ended his plan for reconstruction and Andrew Johnson, a southern democrat, allowed a mess to occur in the southern states. Grant used the army to put down the KKK and restore order in the south, but white supremacy was active in creating structures that enforced discrimination and separation. It was a really ugly part of our history and shouldn’t have happened.
        We are 160 years from the Civil War that 300,000 white northern men died in for emancipation. A lot has happened and hearts are not nearly as prejudiced as they have been in the past. Minorities are welcome in all career paths and people get along really pretty well. So why are there riots now?
        Almost everyone is in agreement that the policeman in Minnesota who killed George Floyd should be tried and serve time for his crime. The riots and chaos is being orchestrated by communist radicals. BLM leaders are on video announcing that they are trained Marxist agitators. What solution has Communism ever offered to race relations other than murdering anyone who steps out of line? Be careful who you support, even if you feel akin to their complaint, you would not like their solution. Antifa is actually a humorous oxymoron. It uses fascist behavior while it pretends that normal Americans are oppressors. Please look very closely at these groups before you pledge allegiance to them. With all its flaws, America is better than anywhere else on earth.


      2. The historical narrative you recount here feels pretty conveniently selective to make us feel better and absolve certain American heroes of wrongdoing. I was taught something very similar to this narrative in school, and it wasn’t until I began to educate myself by seeking out additional historical narratives from marginalized voices that I realized how “whitewashed” my education had been. This is what Mills is talking about when he talks about epistemologies of ignorance. He is not name-calling you or me, but pointing out that the blindspots we have are necessary for maintaining the status quo, under which nonwhite folks are systemically disadvantaged or exploited outright. In that sense these blindspots are prescribed by the Racial Contract.

        I agree that many hearts are not as prejudiced as as they may have been in the past. (Though, clearly, many hearts are, whether this is consciously acknowledge by the bearer of the heart or not.) Approximately 250 years of enslavement, 150 years of segregation and civil inequality, 50 years of whatever we have now. Equality? Doesn’t seem like it. We are living in the wake of generations of entrenched racialized inequality. Our educational, legal and judicial, healthcare, and financial systems, as well as our geographical infrastructure, all still reflect that. (Out of curiosity, have you read or listened to any of the NYT’s 1619 Project?) Also, normal Americans ARE complicit in oppressive systems. This does not make any given individual a “bad person,” which is, I think, what most people are afraid of being. The acknowledgement of it does indicate a shared responsibility though.

        BLM is not a monolithic movement. As in any movement, activists within it will have different views and its platforms are constantly being negotiated. Are some BLM leaders Marxists? Sure. Does this characterize the broadest, most unifying claims of the movement? No. I am sure you get frustrated when groups or positions that you support are characterized by their most “extreme” elements and then critiques are leveled against those strawman characterizations. I support Black Lives Matter, in both the articulation(s) of the complaints and in the proposal(s) of ways to redress systemic harms.

        I take issue with the characterization of the political actions being taken right now as “riots.” It is myopic. We have had over a month of daily demonstrations in Atlanta now, and they have been overwhelmingly peaceful. They are also just one kind of (easily photographed and videoed) action being taken. People are voting, petitioning, letter writing, donating to grassroots organizations that support community health, and educating in ways that support Black life and culture. Why? Because Black lives matter and our institutions have failed them. That’s it. The demonstrations make demands on authority and call attention to this other kind of work.

        I know that it is unlikely that we will see eye to eye on these particular questions any time soon, Gary. But I do hope that you keep reading the blog.


      3. I don’t think my assessment of the economic conditions of the time are a distortion of real life in the 1700’s. Be careful what you read as there has been an industry of communist educators rewriting history over the last fifty to one hundred years. Historians who read the actual documents are more in line with the “whitewashed” story than you think. We aren’t probably going to agree. I still believe that the United States is a good nation that offers its citizens every opportunity for success and living a good life. My biggest concern is that Young people are not being told the basic good of our system nor the basic evil of communism and socialism. They are being led by some really despicable people and they are never told what the end game is. “Fundamental transformation”? To what? What is the goal? William F. Buckley used to say that he would rather be led by the first twenty people in the phone book than the faculty of an Ivy League college.

        Sent from my iPad



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