The Racial Contract
|Author||Charles W. Mills|
|Publisher||Cornell University Press|
The Racial Contract is a book by professor Charles W. Mills in which Mills puts forth his political philosophy regarding the role of race in the formation of the social contract. Mills argues that racism is at the core of the “social contract”, rather than racism being an unintended result attributed to the failings of imperfect men. Specifically, the Racial Contract is a tacit and at times explicit agreement among members of the tribes of Europe to assert, promote, and maintain the ideal of white supremacy as against all other tribes of the world. This intention is deliberate and an integral characteristic of the social contract, a characteristic which persists to the present day. In Mills’ words, “…what has usually been taken...as the racist ‘exception’ has really been the rule; what has been taken as the ‘rule’…[racial equality]…has really been the exception.”
The Social Contract
The Social Contract is a theoretical construct of political philosophy which explains the origins and legitimacy of government in general and the origins and legitimacy of nations as political entities in particular. It is both a hypothetical and actual agreement among individuals to create a cooperative, civil society and thus form a larger, interdependent political unit. The term “social contract” is derived from various political philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbs, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. A famous phrase attributed to Thomas Hobbs states that prior to the creation of government by means of the social contract, humans were in a “state of nature”, where every man lived for himself. In such an environment, life was characterized as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
However, people realized that they could accomplish more and achieve greater individual security if they delegated some of their rights and powers to a government entity. The idea of a Social Contract entails giving up certain individual liberties and powers and delegating those powers to a government for the purpose of creating greater collective benefit. In exchange for receiving these powers from “the people”, the government is obligated to protect the interests and liberties of “the people” in an even-handed manner. When the government fails to protect those interests, “the people” have a right to change the government, rebel against an unjust government, and or take back the powers which they delegated to the government.
The character of this new social and political arrangement entails notions of “liberty” (to pursue one’s own happiness), “freedom” (from fear and attack), and “justice” (the equal administration and application of the laws to all citizens of the polis). From these ideals, originating from such political philosophers, the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were derived, embodying the promises of liberty, freedom, and justice which are also characteristics of the theoretical Social Contract.
Conventional wisdom asserts that under the terms of the Social Contract, undue disparities in wealth, disparities in opportunity, and instances of discrimination based on race were peripheral “detours” along the path towards an ideal society. These acts of discrimination were the unintended consequences perpetuated by well-meaning, yet flawed men.
The ideal however, is a republic where all people are treated equally (with respect to the law) regardless of their race, gender, creed, social status, net worth, or position of political power.
Dr. Mills argues however, that these ideals of the Social Contract are at worst pure fiction or at best were intended only to apply to a specific group of people, namely members of the tribes of Europe and their genetic descendants. “…’when white people say ‘Justice,’ they mean ‘Just Us’.”
Thus when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men were created equal” he did not literally mean that all men or even all human beings were created equal. After all, Mr. Jefferson owned African slaves at the time of his writing the Declaration of Independence and continued to own slaves up until the time of his death. He could not have possibly meant that people of African descent were created equal, treated as equals, and entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If he did, then how could one explain his maintaining a slave population under his control?
The existence of the Racial Contract explains these apparent contradictions, in that peoples of color were never intended to be included as signatories to the Social Contract. A contract is simply an agreement between two or more people. According to Dr. Mills, the Racial Contract was and is an agreement made among the tribes of Europe (roughly during the age Age of Exploration and European colonialism) to establish political systems and policies which at their heart held the ideal of White supremacy and that-that White supremacy, should be instituted around the globe.
White supremacy is merely the belief that the groups comprising the tribes of Europe are the most naturally fit to guide and dominate the world, based on inherent genetic characteristics which are externally correlated with phenotype and external physiology (i.e., the appearance of the skin and external body structure and features). The idea of White supremacy also implies that those not belonging to the tribes of Europe are of a lower social standing, and are not participants in the Social Contract.
These “peoples of color” only exist to serve the interest of the tribes of Europe and need the intervention of European guidance and patronage in order to achieve any semblance of “civilization”. Under the terms of the Racial Contract, peoples of color may be treated under a different set of moral, political, economic, and even military rules than those belonging to the tribes of Europe. Peoples of color are not part of the Social Contract and exist outside its bounds. Hence Native Americans can be forced off their land, Africans enslaved, and Chinese forced to accept British supplied opium without any sense of contradiction.
According to Mills, the social contract was never intended to include peoples of color. The most notable document testifying to this is the opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). There, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney details at length how non-Europeans (such as Africans and Native Americans) were not included in the Declaration of Independence nor were they intended to be included. Specifically, justice Taney remarked when referring to the words of the Declaration of Independence that, “…[those words] would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration…"  Justice Taney says this understanding of the inferior role of non-Europeans was so well known in the time of Thomas Jefferson, that there was no need for Jefferson to explain what he meant by the phrase “all men are created equal” . It was clear that it meant only all “white men” stating, "Yet the men who framed this declaration… perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and [from] the family of nations…”. Further, years after penning the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson himself stated “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind… This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” Mills also points to a number of papal bulls, the Treaty of Tordesillas, and the Berlin conference as further proof of the existence of a Racial Contract.
Dr. Mills argues that the Racial Contract underwrites and guides the Social Contract and thus assigns political, economic, and social privileges based on race. It divides the world into “people who matter” (white people) and “people who don’t” (everyone else). It dictates what will count as knowledge, what will count as history, what facts exist, and what facts do not exist since to acknowledge such facts would contradict the world view perpetuated by the Racial Contract.
If the Racial Contract is an intentional and integral part of the Social Contract, then racism is still the de facto practice and ideology among political and economic institutions around the world which are dominated or influenced by members of the tribes of Europe. The alleged advances in racial equality are merely superficial “window-dressing” to give the appearance of progress; however in reality they only serve as token gestures to lull people of color into a false sense of security, complacency, and dependency.
Unless and until the Racial Contract is exposed, examined, and 'torn up altogether', racism will be the central undercurrent guiding political and economic decisions around the world, despite external appearances to the contrary.
Modern society is typically characterized as a “post-racial” world. Meaning, the idea of race being a barrier to success has been substantially outdated and overcome. With the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, all racial barriers have been deemed effectively eliminated. President Obama’s father was a dark-skinned African and president Obama’s external physical appearance can easily be characterized as “black” or “African American”. Historically, the United States was a land where persons of African descent were considered "...so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect...”  They were considered personal property, denied the right to vote, were counted as 3/5th of a person, racially segregated, and violently oppressed for seeking to gain political and economic rights. For a person of African descent to now occupy what is considered the most powerful and prestigious office in the land (if not the world) should be proof–positive that racial barriers have been overcome.
This type of racism is more insidious, pernicious, and effective because it is hidden and covert. In that way it is more difficult to detect, more difficult to challenge, and more difficult to resist. Mills’ Racial Contract allows the reader to see this hidden reality.
The Racial Contract was widely reviewed in philosophy journals at the time of its publication. The book was considered an important entry in the dialogue on race. The book was awarded the Myers Outstanding Book Award.
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- Cohen, P.N. (1999). "Book Review: The Social Contract". Review of Radical Political Economics 31 (2): 102–105. doi:10.1177/048661349903100208.
- Mills, Charles W. (1999). The Racial Contract (paperback ed.). Cornell Paperbacks. p. 122.
- Mills, Charles W. (1999). The Racial Contract (paperback ed.). Cornell Paperbacks. p. 110.
- Finkelman, Paul (November 30, 2012). "The Monster of Monticello". The New York Times.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 410 (1857). "(a.k.a. the "Dred Scott case", U.S. Supreme Court case).".
- Jefferson, Thomas (1781). Notes on the State of Virginia. p. 87.
- Mills, Charles W. (1999). The Racial Contract (paperback ed.). Cornell Paperbacks. p. 133.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 (1857). "(a.k.a. the "Dred Scott case", U.S. Supreme Court case).".
- "The Racial Contract". Cornell University Press website. Retrieved 28 January 2010.