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In Memoriam: Charles Mills

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2022

Brown University
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© American Political Science Association 2022

Charles Mills, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center, passed away on September 20, 2021. Charles was born in London in 1951, where his Jamaican parents were graduate students. He grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1985. Prior to CUNY, Charles held faculty positions at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University.

Charles was the author of six books and over a hundred journal articles, book chapters, comments, and replies. His first book, The Racial Contract (1997), won the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award for the study of bigotry and human rights in America and has been translated into Korean and Turkish. His second book, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (1998), was a finalist for the award for the most important North American work in social philosophy of that year. His other books include From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003), Contract and Domination—co-authored with Carole Pateman (2007), Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class and Social Domination (2010), and Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (2017). He was the president of the American Philosophical Association Central Division in 2017-18, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.

Charles was one of the most important contemporary political philosophers. In addition to his key contributions to the philosophy of race, the impact of his work extends beyond his discipline. Charles formulated concepts that have become central to scholarship on race and racism across a wide swath of academic disciplines, and the accessibility and reach of his work have made it a central building block in the study and teaching of racial justice and racism. His impact on political theory was evident in his consistent participation in Political Science conferences, such as the APSA and the Western Political Science Association Annual Meetings. During these meetings, Charles generously and rigorously responded to the work of colleagues—many of them junior scholars whose work he encouraged and supported. Unusually for an academic philosopher, Charles also produced work that was widely accessible to an audience beyond the academy. His best-selling The Racial Contract (1997) is an indispensable text for teaching about racism, as demonstrated by the fact that it has been adopted by courses in philosophy, political science, sociology, anthropology, literature, African-American Studies, American Studies, and more. Indeed, there are generations of students across the country who have grappled with how contemporary racism works via this text.

Contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, particularly since the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), has been dominated by an account of justice that abstracts out from existing injustice into the realm of ideal theory which assumes the existence of a just society. In one of the most important challenges to this mode of theorizing, Charles’ life work forced philosophy to grapple with the fact that liberalism—contra the usual conflation of its theoretical commitments with the actual historical record—has historically been racialized and assigned conceptions of personhood and resulting rights and responsibilities on the basis of race. Charles sought to recuperate contractarian liberalism from its racial origins and reframe it conceptually to place questions of racial justice at its center. As he explained in Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), this is the only way that racial justice could be achieved. Charles gives both substantive and strategic reasons for this claim: liberalism’s ideal of moral equality is normatively attractive even if it has never been fully implemented in practice, and as the dominant political ideology in the world today, a conception of racial justice rooted in it has a greater likelihood of being adopted.

Charles’ scholarship was exceptionally creative and made a number of important contributions to the philosophy of race, scholarship on racial justice, and critical race theory. The concepts of “the racial contract” and of “white ignorance” were particularly significant in his work.

Charles developed the notion of the racial contract in order to show the inner logic of racial domination and how it structures political communities in the West and elsewhere in a way that would be easily understood by those familiar with the notion of the social contract. The racial contract, he argues, is political, moral, and epistemological; it is an exploitation contract— i.e., it determines who gets what. The racial contract is also global; it emerged at a particular point in time with European conquest and colonization. The concept of the racial contract is brilliant because it makes visible and palpable how, since the invention of race, societies have been hierarchically ordered to apportion privileges to some and make possible the exploitation of others. Charles’ notion of the racial contract is widely cited in contemporary scholarship on race and racism, as scholars routinely refer to the concept to sketch accounts of how racism functions and is reproduced.

The concept of “white ignorance” has been equally influential and fundamental for understanding contemporary racism. It is related to the racial contract in that it refers to the epistemological aspect of the contract— i.e., how race shapes agreements about who can know what as well as how this in turn shapes the moral orientations of white citizens in a racial polity. Charles defines white ignorance as a non-knowing fundamentally structured by race. It operates for both racist cognizers—those with straightforwardly racist beliefs—and non-racist cognizers—those without prejudice who may nevertheless form mistaken beliefs because of the social suppression of pertinent knowledge. The concept of white ignorance thus helps explain why some citizens might argue that opportunities for blacks and whites have been the same in the US since the end of slavery, or why they might incorrectly believe that Black citizens and immigrants are the primary beneficiaries of welfare. In actuality, it is working-class whites who are the largest beneficiaries of federal anti-poverty programs, even though they have a lower rate of poverty than Blacks and Latinos as a group. The concept of white ignorance is thus crucial for understanding both how racism is reproduced in ostensibly ‘color-blind’ eras, and why narratives of white grievance have become such potent mobilizing tools in our current moment.

Beyond his accomplishments as a scholar, Charles was a lovely human being. His humor, kindness, and self awareness made him easy to approach and interact with despite his professional stature. I recall him sharing the news of his election as president of the Central APA with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, adding that this was not as impressive as it might seem because only about 20 people usually vote in these kinds of elections. Nevertheless, it was clear that he was pleased, largely because giving the presidential address would give him a chance to return to a theme that was central to his professional life: that philosophy, as he tirelessly documented, remains a very white discipline both in its subject matter and its practitioners. Charles devoted lifelong efforts to diversifying philosophy as a discipline and forcing it to grapple with his critique of the historical moral evasions of standard contractarianism and liberalism. Charles also supported and nurtured the work of people of color as well as the work of women in philosophy and political theory. He was a mentor to many, as well as a generous supporter and friend.

His clear-eyed, incisive, kind, and hopeful moral voice was a gift in these troubled times. He will be sorely missed.■