At its most basic, the social contract is an agreement pertaining to the political and moral obligations between the state and the individual. It grants the state both authority over the individual and responsibility for maintaining social order. At the same time, the individual is granted certain rights. However, despite being founded upon a discourse of universalism, Charles W. Mills (1997) contends that the social contract was in fact, from its very inception, inherently racialised.
Mills’ theory of the racial contract rests upon three claims: (1) that ‘white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years’; (2) ‘white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system’; and, (3) that ‘as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized based on a contract between whites, a Racial Contract’ (1997: 7).
Drawing on Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988), Mills charts the way in which ‘society was created or crucially transformed, how individuals in that society were reconstituted, how the state was established, and how a particular moral code and a certain moral psychology were brought into existence’ (1997: 10). In doing so, Mills draws our attention to the way in which the idea of race and racism fundamentally shaped how Western philosophical thinkers (e.g. Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mill and Rousseau) conceived humanity, democracy and the political subject.
As Mills explains, key political philosophy thinkers constructed their theories and concepts using a racial classificatory schema that divided people into the categories of humans and sub-humans. In doing so, white Europeans were associated with spirit, mindfulness and rationality. In contrast, people racialised as non-white were deemed unsuitable, if not incapable, of ‘forming or fully entering into a body politic’ (Mills 1997: 53). Associated with nature and the body, people racialised as non-white were deemed lacking in forms of the cognitive power required for reason, authority and governance.
These forms of racial thinking structured the key political developments that occurred during the Enlightenment period: namely the formation of the modern nation-state, European declarations of sovereignty, New World conquest, and the written contracts of slavery and indenture. So much so that the racial contract and the denial of personhood was constitutionally and juridically enshrined, thus establishing ‘a racial polity, a racial state, and racial juridical system, where the status of whites and non-whites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom’ (1997: 13-14). As a result, for Mills, ‘proclamations of the equal rights, autonomy, and freedom for all men’ went hand-in-hand ‘with the massacre, expropriation, and subjection to hereditary slavery of men at least apparently human’ (1997: 64).
In recent years, Mills’ work has been used to expose the way which the racial contract continues to underpin the social and political world. In Britain, Nirmal Puwar (2001; 2004) highlights the way in which the racial contract operates in Westminster, the home of British politics, the senior civil service, academia, the art world and everyday life. From an Indigenous woman’s perspective, Debbie Bargallie (2020) unmasks the racial contract that exists in the Australian Public Service. In doing so, Puwar and Bargallie show that despite the rhetoric of equality, diversity, inclusion, meritocracy and reconciliation, these are spaces of institutional racism structured by ‘racialised somatic norms’ which result in non-white bodies being considered ‘out of place’ (Puwar, 2001).
Bargallie, D. (2020) Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous Voices on racism in the Australian Public Service. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies press.
Mills, C. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mills, C (1998) Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Pateman, C. (1988) The Sexual Contract. Oxford: Polity Press.
Puwar, N. (2001) ‘The racialised somatic norm and the senior civil service’, Sociology, 53(3), pp. 651-670.
Puwar, N. (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Berg: Oxford.
Further Readings & Resources
3CR Community Radio (2020) ‘Unmasking the Racial Contract: An Interview with Debbie Bargallie’ – audio.
Hamblin, J., Wells, K. and A. Serwerr (2000) ‘The Racial Contract – The Structures of “The Before” shape the present’, Social Distance, 13th May 2020 – podcast.
Mills, C. (2002) ‘The “racial contract” as methodology (not hypothesis: rely to Jorge Garcia’, Philosophia Africana: Analysis of Philosophy and Issues in Africa and the Black Diaspora, 5, pp.25-53.
Mills, C. (2012) ‘Liberalism and Racial Justice’, Provost Lecture Series, Stony Brook University, 27 September 2012 – video
Mills, C. (2014) ‘Racial Equality’, Social Equality Conference, Cape Town, August 2014 – Video.
Mills, C. (2015a) ‘Breaking the racial contract’, Dissent, Fall, pp.43-5.
Mills (2015b) ‘The racial contract revisited; still unbroken after all these years’, Politics, Groups and Identities, 3(3), pp. 541-57.
What does Charles Mills mean when he argues that the idea of race was ‘a central shaping constituent’ of Western enlightenment thinking?
What does Mills mean when he suggests that political philosophy has ’ treated the ‘white body as normative’?
Examine the historically contingent ways that notions of ‘personhood’ and ‘subpersonhood’ have fortified Western global hegemony?
Discuss the existential, conceptual and methodological claims which underpin Mills’ theory of the racial contract?
In what ways does the racial contract continue to shape disenfranchisement and exclusion?
Submitted by Stephen D. Ashe
Image: University of Toronto