Historical Realities of Racialized Exploitation

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. As we have seen, the Racial Contract is a contract between persons, marked white, over subpersons, marked nonwhite. It creates, codifies, and sustains a racialized social and moral hierarchy. In the previous two posts, I have described the terms of the Racial Contract– its political, moral, and epistemological elements. This final post will briefly describe its historical reality and its exploitative purpose. If you haven’t read the first two posts on in this series on the nature of the Racial Contract and the “epistemologies of ignorance” required to maintain it, check those out first and come back! 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.

The Racial Contract is a historical reality

While most modern contractarian theories have given up any pretense of describing historical events (see Rawls’ completely hypothetical contract approach), Mills’ analysis of the Racial Contract is grounded in, and provides a framework for understanding, relatively recent historical events. Although no single act corresponds to the drawing up and signing of a contract, there is a well-documented series of acts “which collectively can be seen, not just metaphorically but close to literally, as its conceptual, juridical, and normative equivalent” (21). These acts include, amongst other things, theological pronouncements, colonization and international law, pacts and treaties, academic and scientific debates about the humanity of nonwhites, and formalized legal structures of differential treatment. Mills spends a significant portion of the book describing the events and documents that constitute the Racial Contract from European conquest and colonialism to twentieth century state-sanctioned violence against nonwhite peoples in the United States and white settler societies. European conquest was supported by a theological framework that advanced the demarcation between Christians and “heathens.” Mills suggests that Enlightenment era secularlism ultimately did not challenge this us vs. them dichotomy so much as recreate it in other forms. During this era, with the help of the organizational frameworks of science, “race” became the formal marker of differentiated status. The distinctions between “men” and “natives,” or the “civilized” and the “barbaric,” gave way to a two-tiered moral and political code for whites and nonwhites (23).

If you find yourself objecting that this is just theory, that it is abstract and thus of limited value, note that the intellectual frameworks, political actions, formal codifications of these views are extensively documented. Mills uses excerpts from theological pronouncements, legal documents, published and widely read philosophical and scientific writings, to support his claims throughout the book.

The Racial Contract is an exploitation contract

As a consequence of historical events, we now live in a world “which has been foundationally shaped for the past five hundred years by the realities of European domination and the gradual consolidation of global white supremacy” (20). The moral and political views that we now think of as neutral with regard to race, like modern political liberalism, developed within this reality of the framework of the Racial Contract and, generally speaking, took it for granted. They served to maintain actual inequality while ostensibly advancing the ideal of equality. Mills argues that one of the merits of the Racial Contract theoretical model is that we are in a better position to bring about desired political ideals, like equality, if we can identify and explain the actual obstacles to their realization.

These obstacles are substantial because the Racial Contract politically and economically advantages its signatories. Mills argues that the Racial Contract is an exploitation contract, the purpose of which is to justify the appropriation and exploitation of nonwhite bodies, lands, and resources. The historical record reflects various moral and legal doctrines that take slightly different forms but which can be understood as instantiations of the overarching Racial Contract designed to fit specific circumstances. Mills identifies historical examples of expropriation contracts (as in the claim of Native Americans being treated as mere occupancy rather than sovereign dominion), slavery contracts, and colonial contracts (24-25). These various examples are united by the fact that they serve to entrench the subperson status on nonwhites so as to economically enrich white polities. A globally “color-coded” distribution of wealth and poverty “has been produced by the Racial Contract and it turn reinforced adherence to it in its signatories and beneficiaries” (37). Moreover, it is not just the Europe and former white settler states are economically dominant in a global sense, but that within them, where there is a significant nonwhite presence, whites continue to be privileged vis-à-vis nonwhites.

Hence it does not benefit those who thrive under the status quo to engage this history, interrogate white supremacy, or identify the obstacles to overcoming it. The epistemologies of ignorance that comprise the epistemic norms of the Racial Contract work to maintain the status quo and its material implications. Mills writes, “We live, then, in a world built on the Racial Contract. That we do is simultaneously quite obvious if you think about it… and nonobvious, since most whites don’t think about it or don’t think about it as the outcome of a history of political oppression but rather as just ‘the way things are’” (30).

The intention behind this series of blog posts is to tap into the current political moment where whites in the US are being prompted to reckon with this history of oppression, ongoing manifestations of it, and their complicity in them, and provide some additional philosophical fodder for thinking about it. I hope you found something thought-provoking here. If you have any questions, comments, or objections, leave a comment below! If there is a topic you’d like me to write about on the blog, I’d love to hear from you too!

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