Charles Mills’s Black Rights/White Wrongs represents the culmination of more than two decades of work on the philosophy of race and social justice. Mills received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1985, working with the left-wing philosophers Frank Cunningham and Daniel Goldstick on the concept of ideology in Marx and Engels. In the following years, liberal political philosophy would be strongly challenged. A growing number of feminists argued that liberal normative theorists were engaged in a form of selective historical imagination, erasing everyone but white males from the story of political society’s origins.
Already fluent in Marxist thought and politics, Mills was strongly influenced by these arguments, particularly as they were delivered in Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract; and in his first book, The Racial Contract, Mills initiated a searing critique of modern liberal theory. Despite its progressive intonations, he argued, the tradition had consistently obscured the history of racism and white supremacy in liberal societies, thereby turning a blind eye to racial inequality while embracing Enlightenment values without qualification.
Mills followed The Racial Contract with two collections that continued this critique: From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism and Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. In the former, he examined how Marxism also fell prey to masking certain forms of inequality, especially when it came to race; in the latter, he explored the often overlooked sociological assumptions in liberal moral and political philosophy that resulted in the erasure of black people and their political history and experiences during colonialism and postcolonialism. In 2007, Mills and Pateman partnered to write Contract and Domination, a condensed discussion of the main arguments in their critiques of liberal normative theory. But dedicated readers of Mills’s corpus also noticed that he was in the process of rethinking his own criticisms. His essays suggested a pivot toward a systemic theory of his own that would give readers a picture of liberalism’s ills and a way to remedy them.
Black Rights/White Wrongs, Mills’s latest book, is that long-awaited result: his most thorough account yet of why and how liberal political theory has gone wrong. He returns to his criticism that liberal theory has mainly been attentive to and representative of the sociohistorical demands of white people (men in particular), but he also argues for a refreshed liberalism that retains its core political commitments while offering a fuller reckoning with the racial hierarchies and inequalities of America’s past and present. His argument is best understood as progressing in two phases. The first finds Mills placing liberal theory’s history alongside that of race and empire in the West; the second confronts John Rawls’s foundational work, A Theory of Justice, as well as the social-contract tradition that he helped to revive.