UNIA Parade, Organized in Harlem, 1920 (New York Public Library)
It is difficult to imagine recent Black intellectual history without the towering presence of Charles W. Mills. A political philosopher originally from Jamaica, Charles W. Mills helped make sense of the relationship between anti-Black racism and the liberal political and philosophical tradition that has defined “the West” for centuries. Tributes to Mills have poured in across the educational and media landscape since his passing last week. At Black Perspectives¸ we seek to briefly put his life and career in context of broader trends in Black intellectual history.
Mills’ career as a writer and scholar spanned decades. The crux of his work rectified a clear flaw in the long history of liberalism: the problem, and persistence of, anti-Black racism. In this, Mills often critiqued philosophers such as John Rawls, whose books on liberalism—A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993)—have influenced generations of philosophical debate on the state of the liberal tradition. But Mills found it galling that political philosophers such as Rawls failed to directly confront the problem of racism inherent in modern liberalism. As Mills wrote in the introduction to his book Black Rights/White Wrongs, a collection of essays about the topic of racial liberalism, “I try to bring out the absurdity of the leading American philosopher of justice having nothing substantive to say over his working lifetime about what has historically been the most salient form of American injustice, racial domination.”
Mills’ journey through the halls of academia and public intellectual engagement kicked off with his 1997 book, The Racial Contract. There, he argued for the centrality of race and racism at the heart of Western liberalism. This began a career of critiquing philosophical giants such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Jean Jacques Rousseau—not to mention American figures such as Rawls. However, Mills’ arguments extended to a full-scale critique of philosophy as an intellectual endeavor, noting how often colleagues who studied European and American philosophy failed to engage with their counterparts in African American Studies.
Mills argued in an interview given in 2020 that it was well past time for American philosophers to work harder to incorporate African American theorists and thinkers into their analysis of American society. He asked why individuals such as “David Walker, Maria Stewart, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and many others” were “completely excluded from the official ‘Anglo-American’ origin story?” This is, of course, a hallmark of Black intellectual history. A continued pursuit of challenging and reshaping the intellectual contours of American, and Western, intellectual life, Black intellectual history refuses to accept easy answers about such silences in the archives and the libraries of intellectual history.
Ideas of subverting and, ultimately, dismantling the “racial contract” of liberalism pushed Mills to return to this question time and again. It is unfortunate we will not have him around to continue asking such important questions of philosophers and other scholars, at a time when the resurgence of white nationalism across the western world begs for new solutions to old problems. But Mills offered a sustainable, and important, model for engagement with the public on these issues.
Scholars of the African American experience, political philosophers, and others have greatly benefited from the work of Mills. Further, his methodological framework of a “racial liberalism” allowed Mills to consider deeply just how far the problem of racism has touched every aspect of societies in the West. Perhaps ironically, Mills himself still believed that, despite all of its flaws, liberalism held within it the potential for good and radical change for all–if it could reform itself beyond the racism of its past. His proposal for a “Black radical liberalism,” for example, was Mills’ forceful argument for using the basic parts of liberalism and turning them into something new, profound, and distinctly anti-racist.
In a sense, Mills lived long enough to see many scholars and lay people alike come around to his views on liberalism and the social contract. Mills referred to the “present heightened national and global consciousness about race and racism in the aftermath of (George) Floyd’s killing” during his 2020 interview as pushing people to further contemplate what might be the inherent flaw of a system that refuses to acknowledge racial different publicly, and yet thrives off of white supremacy. Ideas behind the racial contract and a continuing critique of racial liberalism—which Mills hoped could lead to a genuinely radical form of liberalism, treating all as equal—will form the crux of future conversations about Black Lives Matter, race and American life, and the Black intellectual tradition.