The House That Charles Built

The House That Charles Built

Over a long career as a public intellectual, Charles Mills used his gut-punching wit and moral clarity in defense of racial justice.

Charles Mills in 2020 (University of Michigan)

Charles Mills liked to tell a joke. “I think of mainstream philosophy as something like Antarctica,” he would say. “It’s a giant, frozen, hostile, white continent with a few scattered figures of color. Under global warming, Antarctica is going to turn brown before philosophy does.”

The defiant and peerless Jamaican political philosopher has died. He was seventy. Over a long career as a public intellectual, Mills used his gut-punching wit and moral clarity in defense of racial justice.

Mills was best known for his first and now canonical 1997 book The Racial Contract, in which he began a lifelong crusade against the unspoken but tacitly accepted centrality of whiteness in modern liberal thought and practice. At best, he argued, modern liberalism was indifferent to racial inequality. At worst, it was actively committed to reproducing it. Yet, his towering philosophical contribution was aimed not at throwing liberalism into the dustbin as one might expect. Much to the dismay of his critics, Mills set about reconstructing it.

Mills graduated from the University of Toronto in 1985 with a PhD in Philosophy, though by then he was more interested in Marxism than critiquing John Rawls and his liberal antecedents. His dissertation was on the concept of ideology in the work of Marx and Engels and for years he identified with the precepts of historical materialism. That started to change in the early 1990s when he came to believe, as he put it in a recent interview with the political scientist Michael Dawson, “a philosophical investigation into race need not take a stand” on how race had become central to the U.S. social order. Historians and social scientists can duke it out over causal questions; the task of philosophy must be to get clear about our normative commitments.

He would go on to author six more books elaborating on the foundational philosophical arguments of The Racial Contract, including Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race and Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. He authored and co-authored hundreds of articles and essays and was the recipient of numerous awards including, most recently, the American Political Science Association’s Benjamin E. Lippincott Award for The Racial Contract. His writing will also be remembered for its style: he ceded no ground on the sophistication of his arguments even as he was insistent on reaching a wide audience. He wrote passionately yet accessibly in defense of a morally just world.

Any plausible record of Mills’s achievement must take note of his deep investment in Africana political philosophy and theory. It would be horrifying enough if the great scandal of modern liberal thought was a near total silence on the reality of white supremacy; what made it worse was a shocking absence and ghettoization of Black and brown voices in the field, as if the circumstances of their subjection and profound reflections about it were either utterly unremarkable or too provincial for careful study. If you care about a just world, Mills asked his white counterparts, isn’t the absence of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, who named the persistence of white supremacy in society, odd? Isn’t it strange that Black and brown philosophers and theorists make up so little of the professional academic landscape?

On this latter point, Mills had another joke that went something like this: please, Black philosophers, do not book the same flight on the way to the conference because God forbid the plane goes down, we will have lost the field. His biting mockery was intended to delegitimize white philosophy’s unearned self-importance but also to invite us to do the same. Humorous absurdity served as a first step toward doing political theory and philosophy in pursuit of justice. The joke was a critical weapon that he hoped could break the ice.

Mills was deeply committed to supporting and building the professional ranks of Africana political thought and philosophy and one really cannot understand the political implications of his vision without understanding that it required not just different normative commitments but different voices. As he carefully and meticulously constructed a theory of social justice, he fiercely supported colleagues and graduate students working on issues and questions typically marginalized in the field, many of whom had experienced the loneliness of being non-white in academia.

I taught The Racial Contract on Wednesday, just days after his passing, and I was struck by a general sense among my students that Mills was right in observing the unspoken whiteness that shapes mainstream theory and philosophy’s longue durée. I wondered how his argument was received among students when it was first released in a time when notions of liberal multiculturalism were ascendent in American society. Of course, my students inhabit a less optimistic era. Although there was sharp disagreement about what follows from endorsing the centrality of whiteness in modern liberal thought, there was no question in my classroom about the reality of the racial contract itself.

I was also struck by my own placement in the classroom: a Black political theorist in a field in which there are not many Black political theorists, trained in part by a Black political theorist who himself can count his Black philosopher and theory mentors on one hand. That we do this work is partly the result of the house that Charles built. He is one in a group of pioneers in our field who have made it possible for the questions we ask to be taken up in the first place.

Jared Loggins teaches Black studies and political theory at Amherst College.