Charles Mills Thinks Liberalism Still Has a Chance

Charles Mills Thinks Liberalism Still Has a Chance

Charles Mills Thinks Liberalism Still Has a Chance

A wide-ranging conversation with the philosopher on the white supremacist roots of liberal thought, Biden’s victory, and Trumpism without Trump.


Arguably no contemporary scholar has thought more deeply about how liberalism as a political tradition and philosophy has been historically and structurally biased towards the socioeconomic interests of white people than the political philosopher Charles W. Mills. In works such as The Racial Contract and Black Rights/White Wrongs, he has sought to show the reality of an ongoing system of white domination in which liberalism—both as a philosophy and as a system of governance—is complicit. Mills traces the problem back to the origins of modern liberalism, when liberals thinkers such as Kant and Locke limited the question of moral and political equality to whites, at the same time that European powers were enslaving and oppressing nonwhite peoples.

Mills’s work aims to study liberalism not merely as a theory of equality or freedom, but as an actual practice, one whose history demonstrates an “across-the-board pattern of unjust systemic white advantage.” In this sense, he argues, contemporary liberalism itself is beholden to white supremacy, not as a racial ideology but as a long-standing political system of white racial domination.

To what degree are contemporary liberal philosophers still beholden to what he terms the “racial contract”? Can liberalism break itself free from its long history of racial and economic inequality? And does not liberals’ advocacy for Black Lives Matter, their resistance against the nativism of Donald Trump, and their support of Joe Biden prove this? To answer these questions, I spoke with Mills about the Biden presidency, the enduring legacy of racial contract theory, and the events at the US Capitol on January 6.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: What is the notion of the “racial contract” and how does it specifically relate to your understanding of white supremacy?

Charles W. Mills: The “racial contract” as a concept is an attempt to bring race and white supremacy into discussions within mainstream political theory. Social contract theory (going back to Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and others) has been central to modern Western political thought. It proposes that we imagine social and political institutions as if they were contractually created by equal men in a pre-sociopolitical stage (the “state of nature”). But there are at least two problems. To begin with, the “men” in the writings of the classic theorists really are male, and they seem pretty white also. And second, while this metaphor might work for genuinely egalitarian social orders, like premodern hunter-gatherer societies, what about oppressive modern societies? Where is there any conceptual room in such a picture for representing gender and racial domination in the modern period?

In 1988, Carole Pateman’s book The Sexual Contract addressed both of these problems by suggesting we reread the social contract as involving an exclusionary “sexual contract” among white men. So that immediately provides us with a far more realistic iconography for understanding the societies of Western modernity. They are not inclusive consensual democracies but patriarchal societies structured by a discriminatory, in-group, white male agreement. Inspired by Pateman, I wrote The Racial Contract in 1997 to argue similarly that, insofar as the modern world is shaped by European expansionism (colonialism, imperialism, white-settler states, racial slavery), it could likewise be regarded as founded on an exclusionary intrawhite “racial contract” that denies equal moral, legal, and political standing to people of color.

“White supremacy” as a concept had long been repurposed by critical race theorists in law and elsewhere as a term to denote structural white domination. (This is not “white supremacy” as an ideology but as a particular kind of social system.) So I borrowed from this literature as well. Just as the revisionist idea of a sexual contract illuminates patriarchy, then, so the revisionist idea of a racial contract illuminates white supremacy. We now have a powerful theoretical tool for bringing radical feminist and antiracist political theory into a critical engagement with liberalism and its glossing over of the realities of gender and racial exclusion in “liberal” polities. (Pateman and I would later try to tackle the “intersectional” challenge of uniting the two contracts in our joint 2007 book, Contract and Domination.)

DSJ: Concerning white supremacy, I was struck by how bold the first sentence of The Racial Contract is: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” You wrote these words at the peak of the liberal international order in the 1990s. How provocative a thesis was your claim of white supremacy at the time, especially within philosophy?

CM: I would say that it was so provocative, so deviant from the conventional mainstream philosophical wisdom, that even now, nearly a quarter century later, it is still beyond the pale of acceptance. It’s imperative to appreciate the deep influence of race in modernity not merely on everyday cognition but on supposedly rigorous theorization in the academy. Race shapes the development of such modern academic disciplines as sociology, political science, anthropology, criminology, International Relations theory, and many others, as well as older disciplines from the premodern period like philosophy and history. The casual and near-ubiquitous assumption of white racial superiority, biological and/or cultural, distorts all of them.

In the postwar, nominally postcolonial period, when saying such things in public is no longer politic (all those newly empowered Black and brown citizens and newly independent Black and brown nations who might be offended), a massive retroactive cleanup job thus has to be undertaken. An academy that was white supremacist not merely in its demography but in its content has to reinvent itself. “Race,” when it is even acknowledged, is reconceived of as personal prejudice, disconnected from social structure, political domination, and the methodological frameworks of official academic investigation.

So despite the (one would think) obvious and undeniable history, in the US, of the domination of whites over Blacks and Native Americans, or the global hegemony up to World War II of Europeans, “white supremacy” becomes a taboo phrase. It denotes a reality that can no longer be admitted. Happily, revisionist work is now being done in all these subjects to expose this historic cover-up and lay the foundations for their systematic rethinking (though philosophy is the laggard, perhaps because it’s the most conceptually challenged of all).

DSJ: The success of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since the murder of George Floyd, demonstrates that charges of white supremacy are increasingly accepted by many mainstream white liberals. What do you make of this development, especially since it would be easy for some to see it merely as a reaction to the rise of Trump? Your work has long associated it with a failure of liberalism itself.

CM: I think, as earlier mentioned, that there’s a pivotal ambiguity in how the term is understood: white supremacy as a racist ideology supporting white racial domination and white supremacy as a system of white racial domination. It’s easy for mainstream liberals to condemn the former, and to criticize President Trump for failing to do so unequivocally. But the sense of the term I’ve focused on in my work is really the latter. And that’s far more controversial, because my argument in The Racial Contract and throughout my work is that you can have an ongoing system of white domination in the absence of an overtly white-supremacist ideology and overt rules of de jure subordination.

The crucial indicator, the crucial metric, is not what flag (actual or symbolic) is flying over the society or what percentage of whites espouse racist views but whether or not one can demonstrate an across-the-board pattern of unjust systemic white advantage, linked historically and/or currently to racialized structures and institutions maintained by white actions and inactions. That’s the real issue.

Trump has been an easy target for liberals, since he represents a throwback to the era of the bullhorn rather than the dog whistle. But even under the Biden presidency, these structures will not disappear. As last summer’s demonstrations and the innumerable press stories on race they stimulated should have made clear, the problem is systemic. And mainstream liberalism has been far less willing even to admit, let alone indict, white supremacy in this global, structural sense. The concept is completely absent from mainstream “white” political philosophy, even that produced by left-liberals like John Rawls and his disciples. In that respect, it’s been a literature of apologia and obfuscation.

DSJ: The liberal philosopher whom you seem most critical of is Rawls: You state that if one were to add together all the sentences pertaining to race or racism in Rawls’s major works, “one might get a half dozen pages, if that much.” You root this in Rawls’s “ideal theory” approach to justice. What is it about Rawls’s ideal theory that, according to you, makes him blind to questions of racial injustice and exclusion? And given this blindness, is there a sense in which Rawls himself tacitly promoted white supremacy?

CM: I’ve engaged most systematically with Rawls for several reasons. He’s certainly the political philosopher most respected in the academy. He’s a left-liberal, and one has higher moral expectations of the left. His concepts of the “basic structure” of society and the “original position” as a device for choosing principles of justice are both very useful innovations in the field. And finally, of course, since I’m trying to work within a modified social contract model myself, he’s a natural target, in the sense that I have to explain why my approach is preferable to his.

I would not say that Rawls promoted white supremacy, but rather that his obtuseness to it (doubtless a function of his socialization) effectively greenlighted its evasion in the vast literature his work would generate, both sympathetic and critical. So you get what is in effect “Jim Crow social justice theory,” in which issues of race are separate and unequal. However, one should not ignore as contributory background factors the broader structural biases rooted in the overwhelmingly white demography of professional philosophy—only 1 percent of US philosophers are Black—and its long history of moral complicity, going all the way back to ancient Greece, with oppression and social hierarchy.

Whatever its pretensions to achieving “Truth” and “Justice”’ Western philosophy has really classically been a discourse by and for the socially privileged, providing rationalizations for injustice. My former colleague Samuel Fleischacker, for example, points out in his invaluable 2005 A Short History of Distributive Justice that it’s only with Gracchus Babeuf in the 1790s, in the French Revolution, that you begin to get a concept of social justice delinked from social status, applying generally to humanity. In other words, it takes well over 2,000 years for our modern inclusive concept (even nominally inclusive) to start to develop from its ancient Greek origins. And yet we’re putatively the go-to guys for theorizing justice! In the context of this history, Rawls is not really that anomalous.

Rawls’s “ideal theory” actually has two aspects, though it’s only recently that I’ve fully begun to appreciate the second one. The first, the obvious normative aspect, is his focus on distributive justice for a perfectly just society. He would never move on, for the rest of his life, to the issue of corrective justice. But there’s also a second aspect, the descriptive, that goes all the way back to the original 1650–1800 version of the contract. Social contract theory is sometimes read as if it’s not merely providing a useful metaphor for how the sociopolitical ideally should be created, but how it actually is created. The contract as a metaphor presupposes consent and egalitarian inclusion, and this framing survives in Rawls’s suggestion that we think of society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” whose rules are “designed to advance the good of those taking part in it.” But as I emphasized, societies structured by racial domination obviously cannot be accommodated by such a picture.

The epiphany I had two years ago is that Rawls is not defining society in such a bizarre way, but rather informing us of the restricted scope of his theory of justice. It does not apply, as he later explains in Justice as Fairness (2001), to racist societies. So that’s the second, far less noticed aspect of his idealizations. He thought, as a factual matter, that the United States and other liberal Western nations were close enough to the descriptive ideal of “cooperative ventures for mutual advantage” that his theory would apply to them. Like most of his contemporaries, he was in deep denial about their historically white-supremacist character. And the shocking implication, once you reject this ludicrous assumption, is that Rawls’s theory of justice, at least unmodified, does not apply to his own country! The socioeconomic structure, the dominant norms, the national moral psychology—it gets all of them wrong. So half a century of American Rawlsianism has basically been misguided. Instead, as I have suggested in my own work, in order to devise appropriate principles of corrective racial justice, we need to work with the superior metaphor of a nonconsensual “domination contract”—here, the racial contract—and the concept of a systemically racialized basic structure.

DSJ: Even as your work is associated with the failures of liberal philosophers to address matters of race, it contains a wealth of resources for understanding contemporary right-wing populism. In particular, you have for years been interested in the idea of “Herrenvolk societies.” What are they and how might they explain the appeal of Trumpism, especially in light of what we witnessed on January 6, with the mob at the Capitol Building, and concerns that such actions will be repeated around the country?

CM: I got the term from the late sociologist Pierre van den Berghe, who characterized countries like the Jim Crow United States and apartheid South Africa as “Herrenvolk democracies,” democratic for the ruling race, the white Herrenvolk, but not the subordinate races. The value of the concept is that it makes explicit that race and racism are part of the constitution of the nation, symbiotically incorporated into its norms and values and legal system, not anomalies. Representing racism as an “anomaly” has historically been one of the key mystifications of mainstream white liberal studies of American political culture, thereby handicapping any attempt to develop an objective understanding in either political science or political philosophy of its actual dynamic. Rawls is fully in this tradition, while my concept of the racial contract challenges it.

And the implication is that the psyche of white citizens is foundationally shaped not merely by rational expectations of differential social and material advantage, but also by their status positioning above Blacks. For a significant percentage of white Trump supporters (I don’t want to say all), I think the hope was that Trumpism—tapping into their “white racial resentment”—would address and eliminate both of these dangers, the ending of differential white material advantage and also the threatened equalization of racial status.

What we saw on January 6 was in significant measure the acting out of the rage at this prospect. It has forced a recognition of the enduring but unacknowledged (especially in the Obama, “post-racial society” years) ongoing normative and material power of white supremacy in the United States. Even mainstream white commentators have been sheepishly compelled into a belated concession of this reality.

So while the assault was a moral and political disaster for the country, it did, in a grim way, have a positive epistemological aspect: Insofar as liberal democracies are ostensibly committed to “transparency” as a central political norm, the uprising had the virtue of revealing the politics of exclusionary white power beneath the liberal facade. Black Americans in particular, of course, have always been subjected to this politics, which is why historically they have been the most consistent in condemning and sounding the alarm about it. But it’s the protesters against racial injustice who are met with riot police and tear gas while the take-America-back folks get the welcome mat, thereby further underlining the point.

DSJ: Trump’s presidency and a global right-wing populist movement signal for many the decline of liberalism and the demise of the liberal international order. There is also a growing socialist movement in this country that, for its own reasons, is equally critical of liberalism’s failures—growing economic inequality, widespread racism, environmental degradation. And yet, despite all of your critiques of liberalism and white supremacy, you nevertheless describe yourself in your latest book, Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017) as a “Black radical liberal” who believes liberalism can be redeemed from its white wrongs. Why do you want to rescue liberalism?

CM: Liberalism is attractive on both principled and strategic grounds. You’re completely right, of course, about the failures of actual historical liberalism, which are manifest, indeed ubiquitous, all around us. But what is the source of these failures? If liberalism has never lived up to its ostensible principles and values, that goes no way in proving that the principles and values are themselves unattractive ones. The illuminating way to understand these violations of (ideal) liberal norms, I suggest in the book, is not as the consequence of an intrinsically self-undermining “illiberalizing” dynamic within liberalism but rather as a manifestation of the corrupting results of group power, whether of the privileged classes, men, or the dominant race, for liberal theory and practice. Hence the creation of a bourgeois, patriarchal, or racial liberalism (usually all three combined, of course).

But we can appeal to the idealized, non-group-restricted versions of liberal principles and values to critique the exclusionary versions—indeed, that is precisely what most American progressive social movements have historically done. Particularly at the present time of authoritarian ethnonationalism’s attack on liberal norms, it is all the more reason to affirm them. Moreover, liberalism as I understand it is certainly not committed to an opposition to socialism in the social democratic sense—arguably, that’s just left-liberalism. And any other variety of hypothetical socialism—market socialism, workers’ democracy—would presumably strive to sell itself by promising a deeper and more extensive realization of liberal values, not their abandonment. So I would claim that the socialist case can indeed be made within a liberal framework. It’s noteworthy that Rawls—surely a respectable liberal!—says explicitly in A Theory of Justice that his theory “includes no natural right of private property in the means of production.”

As for the strategic reasons: Liberalism (in the broad-spectrum sense that includes right-wing “classical” liberals) has uncontroversially been the dominant political ideology in US history, albeit in the restrictive incarnations just delineated. So in trying to win over a broad political audience rather than preach to the choir, as I presume progressives want to do, one immediately has the immense advantage of invoking the political ideology nominally endorsed by the majority. You don’t have to require them to first convert to Marxism or Foucauldian-ism or whatever; you can just say, “If you’re a good liberal, you should support this.” That doesn’t mean that you can’t get valuable insights from Marx or Foucault, of course, but they are ultimately going to have to be “translated” into a liberal framework.

And insofar as legal change will be crucial for progressive structural reform—necessary if not sufficient—need I make the obvious point that the American and broader Western juridical systems are founded on liberal principles and assumptions? The “Black radical liberalism” I am advocating will thus be able to engage directly with its conservative juristic opponents in a way that nonliberal political ideologies will not. The Republicans generally, and the Federalist Society specifically, are certainly in no doubt themselves about the importance of fighting for particular interpretations of the Constitution and the law, which is precisely why they set out years ago to gain control of the courts. Black rights, and nonwhite rights in general, will have to be advanced by liberal arguments and liberal jurisprudence in this liberal (in the broad sense) arena.

DSJ: In a retrospective 2015 forum devoted to The Racial Contract in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, you issued a response to your critics which you entitled “The Racial Contract revisited: still unbroken after all these years.” What do you see as remaining fundamentally unbroken, and given your commitment to liberalism, what, if anything, has changed? What gives you hope?

CM: What I saw as unbroken at the time was the continuing reality of unjust structural white domination and unjust structural white advantage, even in the final years of the Obama presidency. The racial contract can survive such changes of personnel in governing circles; what counts, as I’ve emphasized throughout, are the structures and institutions. And I should stress that liberalism is not, in my reading, committed to the optimistic Whig progressivism traditionally ascribed to it, especially when we need to think of it as predominantly a racialized liberalism historically.

In my 2015 response, I cited a statistic mentioned by New York Times columnist Charles Blow that a 2011 survey had revealed that a majority of white Americans saw themselves as the primary victims of racial discrimination. Not an encouraging figure! But even before the Floyd killing, and before last summer’s huge multiracial demonstrations, such white racial attitudes had shifted. So that is the kind of development that gives me hope, along with the potentiality for the huge wealth disparities of the “New Gilded Age” to create the objective basis for a transracial class alliance of the socially disadvantaged. But a nonzero chance of positive racial change, however small, is obviously going to be diminished even further if one adopts a political quietism predicated on assuming its hopelessness in advance.

DSJ: After much anxiety, Biden defeated Trump in an election that was much closer than expected. Biden wants to unite the country by overcoming the divisions which Trump has sowed—most obviously, racial divisions. As a theorist of political liberalism and race, what do you think is the way forward for liberals to achieve this goal, given a country as bitterly divided as we are? How can liberalism, as you say, “live up to its ostensible principles and values”?

CM: First of all, let me just underline the obvious immediate conclusion, postelection and (somewhat more ambiguously) post-Trump’s “nonconcession” concession. If anyone on the left—this goes back to your earlier question—was suitably terrified a few weeks ago that we might actually be witnessing a slow-motion coup (even before the events of January 6), I hope they now have a far deeper appreciation than ever before of the importance of defending liberalism! Rather than taking for granted or even dismissing liberal democracy’s historic achievements, we need to preserve them against their undermining by the political right, even while (of course) we seek to develop them further. Who would have thought that in 2021—in the nation that thinks of itself as the planet’s preeminent democracy—it would be necessary to have to condemn voter suppression? Yet given the history of the actual norm of Herrenvolk democracy, such suppression, actual or attempted, is not really surprising, but continuous with a conveniently erased past.

The way the incoming Biden administration can address racial inequality, within a liberal framework, is to begin by explicitly repudiating the disastrous conceptual shift from “racial justice” to “diversity” in the national moral and juridical discourse about race. The 1978 Supreme Court Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision was a key ruling in this process, also serving to consolidate the bogus concept of “reverse discrimination.” (For a detailed forensic indictment, see Ellen Messer-Davidow’s impressive forthcoming The Making of Reverse Discrimination: How DeFunis and Bakke Bleached Racism From Equal Protection.) It’s not that diversity isn’t important, but that—apart from being open-endedly indeterminate—it’s far outranked in the hierarchy of values by the imperative of correcting injustice.

As earlier noted, even before last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the idea of structural racial injustice as a national problem in multiple spheres had already become plausible to a far broader white liberal audience than in the “post-racial” Obama years. So you build on that recognition, learning from the mistakes of the unsuccessful President’s Initiative on Race that Bill Clinton attempted in his second term. You work with grassroots social-justice activist groups as well as official bodies. By now there is a huge amount of social-science literature on the mechanisms by which unfair white racial advantage is created and reproduced (the wealth gap, residential and educational segregation, the differentially nonwhite prison population, employment and mortgage discrimination, voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and so forth). The key goal will be to make the essential findings of this literature readily available and accessible to the nonacademic population at large.

So you’re appealing to Americans’ sense of fairness and trying to get them to see that such outcomes are not the result of bad personal choices and irresponsibility, but of historic and ongoing violations of the equal protection supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s where Rawls’s concept of the basic structure (suitably modified) can be particularly useful: educating Americans in high schools and universities across the country about how a racialized basic structure works. Only in the context of such a racial civics education can the relaunching of a nationwide affirmative action program, for example, be a viable political project, let alone more radical measures like reparations. “Moderation,” such as is currently being counseled by Democratic centrists, cannot solve structural problems.

At the same time, there’s no percentage in being naive. Biden’s desire to unite the country is, of course, laudable. But unfortunately it’s clearly unrealizable, at least in the short term. Obama’s 2008 delusion that there were no red states or blue states was shattered by the Republican obstructionism, and this time round it’s likely to be worse. Though their adversary is no longer a Black president, visibly incarnating an un-American wrongness, the Republicans have now emerged even more clearly as the political vehicle of resistant white nationalism. So for tens of millions of Trump’s core white base—again, I’m not saying this is true of all his supporters, nor denying the votes he did get from some people of color—the Democrats are not merely the party of the threatening nonwhite future but the people who stole the election. Hence, they’re doubly illegitimate. That’s no basis for genuinely working across the aisle; that’s the basis for biding your time while waiting for the next political opportunity. Trumpism without Trump could be triumphantly resurgent.

So the Democratic strategy called for is to bring together racial justice with “class” justice, given the need for restructuring an economy so blatantly favoring the rich. You’re trying to combine moral suasion and group interest, especially for the white poor, unemployed, and otherwise disadvantaged. The hard core of Trump’s white base is unreachable either through moral or prudential appeal, considering their sense of righteous white entitlement and racialized identitarian definition of their group interests. But white workers who voted for Obama before Trump could be won back by a Democratic Party making clear a genuine populist commitment to those who have lost out in the new plutocratic order. We have to hope that their numbers will be sufficient to tip the balance.

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