In 2016, I was just finishing up my fourth year of graduate school at UCLA and attended a presentation Charles Mills gave on racial equality that set me off: It attempted to defend liberal philosophy from many of its more radical critics. What surprised me about the talk was that, though by that point Mills had become one of the foremost critics of liberal political theory, particularly from the standpoint of how it addressed race, his argument moved in a different direction. Insisting that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, he argued that liberal philosophy should not be discarded but rethought. It had failed to build methodologies that grappled seriously with the effect of race in structuring the modern world, but its doctrines of equality and liberty also offered a vital language for describing what it missed. Getting a little antsy as the talk neared its end, I raised my hand to ask a question: “Why do we need liberal political philosophers to believe anything at all? Why don’t we just critique them and move on?” Mills received my annoyance with warmth. He grinned and shrugged, letting my bitterness pass over him, and then responded softly, “Maybe we don’t. Give it a shot.”
Mills needn’t have been so patient. He was one of our field’s intellectual giants and had helped play a pivotal role in remaking Anglophone political philosophy. Unbeknownst to me when I launched my grad-school more-radical-than-thou challenge, Mills had also been an active member of numerous radical organizations, including the Jamaican Democratic Party in Canada and the Marxist-Leninist Workers’ Party of Jamaica until its dissolution in the 1990s. I, on the other hand, was an unknown graduate student, a neophyte to the organized left without a single publication to my name to bolster ivory tower credibility. But he greeted my impulsive challenge with not only a kindly response and a sense of humor—he also seemed eager to see Black philosophy students engage with him, even if critically.
Mills’s generous and warm spirit were widely recognized until his death this week at the age of 70—many of us lowly graduate students encountered it, as did many more established scholars. Born on January 3, 1951, to a Jamaican family then living in England, Mills had spent much of his career both criticizing the discipline he was a part of and championing it.
Mills began his academic career in physics, receiving a BA in the subject from the University of the West Indies and teaching it for a few years in Kingston before developing an interest in philosophy, in which he eventually got a PhD from the University of Toronto. But once committed to the field, philosophy was all that Mills thought about. Drawn to Marx and Engels’s social theory (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), he first taught his new field at the University of Oklahoma, determined to bring Africana philosophy to bear on the subject matter that had thus far excluded it. He quickly did so, and much more—becoming a pioneering figure in the fields of political and Africana philosophy. A prolific writer, he produced six books and over 100 journal articles, commentaries, and edited chapters. His body of work challenged multiple fields—philosophy most centrally, but also political theory, cultural studies, and legal scholarship—to contend with the legacy of race and colonialism in the construction of today’s world and in particular in the construction of its moral, political, and epistemological foundations.
Mills’s best-known work, The Racial Contract, put this challenge at its center. Published in 1997, it offered a wide-ranging and critical analysis of liberal political philosophy’s treatment of race. Mills aimed for the book to be “short and punchy,” and it accordingly started out with a bang. The very first sentence insisted that “white supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” As important, it had also made modern political thought what it is today. By examining how liberal contract theory related to the experience of the Black and Indigenous underclasses, Mills sought to force his readers to reconsider the triumphant narrative undergirding liberal thought. Enlightenment liberalism, he argued, had triumphed over the divine right of kings, but only then to codify a social right of white people over nonwhite people.
At the time, the field was dominated by figures like John Rawls who heralded this contract theory and preferred to make their political arguments by ignoring this ignoble history. Mills insisted that no philosophy worth its name could exist above or beyond this history. In subsequent provocative and field-shaping articles, Mills followed up these arguments about Rawls and others’ “ideal theories” of politics and justice with articles such as “White Ignorance” that insisted the insensitivity to history built into these theories was itself a load-bearing aspect of present-day racial injustice, since it ruled out of engaging with the facts needed to understand present oppression and correct for it in our descriptions of what the world ought to be like.
It’s difficult to overstate how important these arguments were when Mills made them. Nowadays our media landscape is inundated with calls for racial justice and reading lists on being better allies. Mills’s work, however, attacked liberal political philosophy and liberalism in general long before it was cool. As Mills noted in the second sentence of The Racial Contract, “You will not find this term [white supremacy] in introductory or even advanced texts in political theory.”
The field’s silence on race, and perhaps the reasons behind it, likely go some distance in explaining why his work’s reception in mainstream political philosophy was initially cold. His books threatened to tarnish the reputation of theorists and theories—one of Mills’s frequent targets for criticism was the aforementioned and well-regarded political philosopher John Rawls—upon which so many philosophers had built their own political and moral systems. Mills also called into question the inequalities found in the philosophy profession. Noting the field’s own lack of diversity, he consistently mocked the hierarchies of prestige and pedigree within academic political philosophy and made it his business to ignore these hierarchies and support and advance those junior to him in the field, whether they agreed with him or not.
By the 2000s, it had become impossible for the academy to ignore Mills’s large body of work. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017 and was selected to give high-profile lectures like the Tanner Lecture on Human Rights and Values in 2020. And Mills not only became an influential intellectual and social critic. He also contributed important critiques of liberalism that helped widen the very field of Anglophone philosophy and political theory. Today, political philosophers and theorists grapple with the effects of race, gender, ability, and class far more frequently than they did at the start of Mills’s career. Mills also helped support a new cohort of philosophers interested in these subjects. I was not the first to challenge Mills on his perceived insufficient radicalism—standing high and mighty atop a vantage point for which he had helped clear the way. But Mills cultivated young philosophers, many of whom were often critics of his own work, by meeting their criticisms with good-humored encouragement. Not 24 hours after Mills’s death, I received texts, DMs, and e-mails relating stories about chance encounters with him: witty (and often self-deprecating) jokes he’d told during or after a conference, help extended over a paper in progress. It seemed almost as if everyone active in any subfield of academic inquiry within shouting distance of the philosophy of race had a story to tell about Mills’s consistent kindness and magnanimity of spirit.
In fact, one of the things that is most notable about The Racial Contract is how it embodies this magnanimity. The Racial Contract was written in response to a pioneering text by political theorist Carole Pateman titled The Sexual Contract. That book was a tour de force of feminist political thinking that opened up important avenues for rethinking the intellectual history of the social contract and the contemporary theories of its liberal inheritors. But Pateman primarily focused her book’s critique of liberalism and liberal political philosophy on Western common law and formal institutions like the marriage contract. One heard less about race, empire, and racially stratified geopolitics, colonial conquest, and the legal institutions of slavery, and this absence was one of the reasons Mills wrote his book. But Mills’s engagement with Pateman’s work did not take the form of a critical denouncement, as we might expect in today’s competitive, polarized, and algorithm-driven public forums. Instead, noting its influence on his own thinking, he explicitly characterized The Racial Contract as an homage to Pateman’s own work and noted how her book had helped prompt his own, no matter how lacking it might have been when it came to slavery, colonialism, race, and the history of empire.
The focus on building with scholars instead of tearing down opponents was not idiosyncratic to Mills’s relationship with Pateman. Mills related to everyone this way, even with those, like my younger self, who publicly told him he had gotten things wrong. Even Mills’s most critical work ended up embodying this commitment. Among his best-known scholarship was his critical assessments of the race-insensitivity of John Rawls’s theory of justice. But Mills’s assessment did not reject Rawls whole cloth so much as call for a retooling of his thought. The same was true of liberalism. Despite his explicitly Marxist intellectual origins, he defended a “Black radical liberalism.”
Mills’s generosity was also not limited to the ivory tower. Mills was a highly sought-after scholar and could have lived lavishly. But he lived extremely frugally. At many a conference, keynote address, or award luncheon, he was often seen wearing the same tattered jacket. The jacket perhaps served as a good setup for many of his self-deprecating jokes, but as longtime friend and fellow philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff noted at a memorial event for his passing, it was also a matter of politics: Mills’s frugality was partially a result of his sending much of his earnings home to friends and family in Jamaica.
Inside and outside of the academy, Mills dedicated his life, career, and finances to the cause of racial justice. He followed through on this commitment until the end. Colorism in Mills’s Jamaica allowed many people of his lighter complexion to claim non-Black racial identities, dissociating themselves from the most disadvantaged and marginalized of their fellow Jamaicans. On one of his last days, a nurse asked him what his race was and before anyone else could answer, he spoke for the first time in several weeks to answer simply: “Black.” It was the last word he spoke.
This focus on community, more than clever arguments, will always be central to Mills’s legacy. Like any other set of philosophical ideas, Mills’s are highly debated among philosophers who study race and politics. Those of us Mills paved the way for take some of his positions, but we also leave others. But in many ways the disagreements are overshadowed by our debt to him. He helped many of us formulate our philosophical positions in the first place and taught us how to communicate their stakes to a public.
Writing soon after Mills’s death, philosopher Liam Kofi Bright related a story about an exchange he had with Mills years before. Mills reminded Bright about his responsibility to represent Black philosophy well, but—he paused for a beat—only “until we can find someone better.” It was a classic Charles Mills moment: a joke, and yet also a moment to state an important truth. I can’t think of a better encapsulation of who Mills was, what he believed in, and the ethos and legacy he has given us. We owe it to Mills and the ancestors he’s joining to do the best we can to live up to the values he embodied. We also owe it to those coming after us. We must engage with our work with the utmost seriousness, but not take ourselves too seriously. We need to greet those who could be our younger selves with warmth and generosity, rather than competition or dominance. After all, one day we too will pass the baton on to someone better: them.