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!