Charles W Mills: philosopher who used work to challenge white supremacy
Charles W Mills, a social and political philosopher who sought to rethink Western liberalism, arguing that white supremacy underpinned the modern world and that philosophy had ignored fundamental issues of race and justice, died at the age of 70 years old.
A native of London who grew up in Jamaica, studied philosophy in Canada, and taught for decades in the United States, Mills was an incisive critic of Western political theory, prompting philosophers to engage with the world as it is. it is rather than how they wished or imagined it. to be. In particular, he noted that his extremely white field seemed to have little to say about the subjugation and brutalization of people of color.
“I like to think of Mills as our black Socrates,” philosopher Christopher Lebron wrote in a 2018 article for the Nation, “Wandering the philosophical streets, asking people why they think a society like ours, stained with a history of racial horrors, is not more ashamed of itself, and why its main minds are not. not of this shame a driving force in the struggle for a more just society.
Mills was best known for his first book, The racial contract (1997), a simple but inflammatory extended essay. He argued that the social contract, a political concept that emerged in the Enlightenment to explain how people consent to give up some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of other rights, was in fact a racial contract, based on a presumption of white domination and created at a time when Europeans enslaved people of color.
“White supremacy is the nameless political system that made the modern world what it is today. You won’t find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory, ”he wrote in the opening lines of the book. Indeed, he added, an undergraduate student could learn more about aristocracy, socialism, libertarianism, etc. several hundred years ”.
Mills used the term to refer not only to Klan gatherings and black slavery, but more broadly the transfer of wealth and opportunity from people of color. He was less concerned with questions of personal bias than with how race shaped politics, society, and the academy itself, where his thesis shocked many of his colleagues.
“It was so provocative, so deviating from mainstream conventional philosophical wisdom, that even now, almost a quarter of a century later, it is still beyond acceptance,” he told the newspaper. Nation in January. “White supremacy,” he added, was “a taboo phrase”, describing “a reality that can no longer be accepted”.
Mills’ friend and philosopher colleague Falguni Sheth said that as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in the 1990s, she was discouraged from studying race by professors who told her that it was “not a real subject of philosophy”.
Reading Mills “completely changed my world,” she said, “because I suddenly felt there was a way to talk about the thing we were forbidden to talk about. We could talk about race. in a serious and philosophical way, but also in a way that sheds light on this liberal myth that we were all good and equal, and that race was a thing of the past. ”
In homage to Mills, Oxford University philosopher Amia Srinivasan said her work possessed “an unusual combination of rigor and daring” and offered a liberating new set of tools that philosophers could use to solve race, gender and class issues. His writings, she added, made people “free to philosophize in a way that, to paraphrase Mills’ first intellectual hero, Marx, not only seeks to describe the world, but to transform it.”
Charles Wade Mills was born January 3, 1951 in London, where his Jamaican parents were graduate students. The family soon moved to the Jamaican capital, Kingston, where Mills was introduced to politics at a young age.
His father, a government professor at the University of the West Indies, chaired a non-partisan committee tasked with overhauling the Jamaican electoral system in the 1970s; her mother, who trained as a nurse, became the director of the country’s YWCA. An uncle was also Jamaica’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Mills turned to philosophy in the 1970s, during a period of growing political violence in Jamaica, but only after graduating with a degree in physics. “Charles joked that physics required real experiences, which could be tested, while philosophy only had thought experiments, with less rigorous tests,” said his friend Linda Martín Alcoff, a colleague from CUNY Graduate Center.
After graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1971, he taught physics at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Kingston, then enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he earned a master’s degree in 1976 and a doctorate in 1985.
He taught at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois Chicago, and Northwestern University, where he was on the faculty for a decade before joining the CUNY Graduate Center. By this time he had published books including Contract and domination (2007), in which he partnered with feminist researcher Carole Pateman to explore the intersection of race, gender and power.
His marriage to Elle Olliviere ended in divorce. The survivors include a brother.
As a writer, Mills became known for a witty, straightforward style of prose with a light touch that came out in articles such as “Do black men have a moral duty to marry black women? “, who used interracial marriage as a way to explore issues. of loyalty and community, and in an unpublished article which argued that there was a coded hierarchy of Europeans in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the Scandinavians (elves) at the top and southern Europeans (orcs) down.
“I read the diary with delightful pleasure,” recalls his former colleague Robert Paul Wolff in a blog post, “and I asked Charles, after I got to know him, why he didn’t. ‘had never published. He said he was worried that if it appeared under his name it would hurt his career.
In his latest book, The rights of blacks / the wrongs of whites (2017), Mills examined how some whites refused to recognize the reality of racial exploitation and envisioned the possibility of a new “deracialized” liberalism that recognized the history of white supremacy.
Arguing that liberalism could be redone rather than rejected altogether, he instructed his students to read political theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant in addition to their modern critiques.
Not all of his colleagues appreciated his efforts.
“They say, ‘Why are you trying to keep this tradition alive? We should give up all this way of doing political philosophy and start all over again, ”he told the Atlantic earlier this year. But Mills disagreed, arguing that liberal and democratic societies were open to change, absorbing new ideas over time. “There is,” he said, “a dynamism within liberalism that they lack.”
Charles W Mills, philosopher, born January 3, 1951, died September 20, 2021
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