George Yancy: You are a philosopher who thinks very deeply about issues of race. Can you provide a sense of your work?
Charles Mills: I think a simple way to sum it up would be as the transition from white Marxism to (what I have recently started calling) black radical liberalism.
G.Y.: So, how does “white” modify Marxism? And what is it about the modification that helps to account for the transition to what you’re now calling black radical liberalism?
C.M.: Mainstream Marxism has (with a few honorable exceptions) been “white” in the sense that it has not historically realized or acknowledged the extent to which European expansionism in the modern period (the late 15th century and onward) creates a racialized world, so that class categories have to share theoretical space with categories of personhood and subpersonhood. Modernity is supposed to usher in the epoch of individualism. The Marxist critique is then that the elimination of feudal estates still leaves intact material/economic differences (capitalist and worker) between nominally classless and normatively equal individuals. But the racial critique points out that people of color don’t even attain normative equality.
In the new language of the time of “men” or “persons” (displacing citizens and slaves, lords and serfs), they are not even full persons.
Social justice theory should be reconnected with its real-world roots, the correction of injustices.
So a theorization of the implications of a globally racially partitioned personhood becomes crucial, and liberalism — once informed by and revised in the light of the black experience — can be very valuable in working this out. In a forthcoming essay collection for Oxford University Press, “Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism,” I try to make a case for this retrieval — the deracialization of a liberalism historically racialized.
G.Y.: So what then is left of the value of Marxism? And does your point mean that there is, historically, a fundamental relationship (perhaps tension) between the political ideals of modernity, the phenomenon of white supremacy and the subhuman racialization of black people?
C.M.: Marxism is still of value in various ways: its mapping of the revolutionary transformative effects of capitalism on the modern world; its diagnosis of trends of concentration of wealth and poverty in capitalist societies (Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” pays tribute to Marx’s insights, while distancing itself from some of his conclusions); its warning of the influence of the material economic sphere on the legal, cultural, political and ideational realms.
It also has various weaknesses, the recounting of which would be too long to get into here. Yes, I would claim that the tension between recognizing (some) people as “individuals” in modernity while subordinating others through expropriation, chattel slavery and colonialism requires a dichotomization in the ranks of the human. So we get what I termed above a “racial” liberalism, which extends personhood on a racially restricted basis. White supremacy can then be seen as a system of domination, which, by the start of the 20th century, becomes global and which is predicated on the denial of equal normative status to people of color. As members of what was originally seen as a “slave race” (the children of Ham), blacks have generally been at the bottom of these hierarchies. But the exclusions were broader, even if other nonwhite races were positioned higher on the normative ladder. At the 1919 post-World War I Versailles Conference, for example, the Japanese delegation’s proposal to incorporate a racial equality clause in the League of Nations’ Covenant was vetoed by the six “Anglo-Saxon” nations — Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. (For a detailed account, see “Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality” by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.) So this event brings out in a wonderfully clear-cut way the reality of a global polity normatively divided between racial equals and racial unequals.
G.Y.: How do you understand the meaning of white supremacy? And why is it that the reality of white supremacy has escaped traditional and perhaps contemporary political philosophers and philosophy? I wonder if there isn’t a subtle, as you say, “dichotomization in the ranks of the human” operating even here.
C.M.: By “white supremacy” I mean a system of sociopolitical domination, whether formal (de jure) or informal (de facto), that is characterized by racial exploitation and the denial of equal opportunities to nonwhites, thereby privileging whites both nationally and globally. Historically, I would say that it was recognized by traditional (modern) political philosophy, but it was generally taken for granted and positively valorized. After World War II and decolonization, of course, the public expression of such views becomes impolitic. So you then have a retroactive sanitization of the racist past and the role of the leading Western political philosophers and ethicists in justifying Western domination.
In the fields of political theory and international relations, there’s now a growing body of revisionist work documenting this history, for example Jennifer Pitts’s “A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France,” John M. Hobson’s “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010,” and Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda and Robbie Shilliam’s co-edited forthcoming “Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line.” Unfortunately, mainstream political philosophy is lagging behind the times in its refusal to admit the significance of this colonial and imperial past, the way it has shaped the modern world, and its implications for conceptualizing justice, both nationally and globally. Here in the United States, for example, we have the absurd situation of a huge philosophical literature on social justice in which racial injustice — the most salient of American injustices — is barely mentioned.
G.Y.: In your 1997 book, “The Racial Contract,” you discuss the concept of an “epistemology of ignorance,” a term which I believe you actually coined. What is meant by that term? And how do you account for the complete thematic marginalization of racial justice? Does an epistemology of ignorance help to explain it?
Political philosophy needs to exit Rawlsland — a fantasy world in the same extraterrestrial league as Wonderland, Oz and Middle-earth (if not as much fun) — and return to planet Earth.
C.M.: Yes, I believe it does help to explain it, but first let me say something about the term. The phrasing (“epistemology of ignorance”) was calculatedly designed by me to be attention-getting through appearing to be oxymoronic. I was trying to capture the idea of norms of cognition that so function as to work against successful cognition. Systems of domination affect us not merely in terms of material advantage and disadvantage, but also in terms of likelihoods of getting things right or wrong, since unfair social privilege reproduces itself in part through people learning to see and feel about the world in ways that accommodate injustice. “Ignorance” is actively reproduced and is resistant to elimination. This is, of course, an old insight of the left tradition with respect to class. I was just translating it into a different vocabulary and applying it to race. So one can see the idea (and my later work on “white ignorance”) as my attempt to contribute to the new “social epistemology,” which breaks with traditional Cartesian epistemological individualism, but in my opinion needs to focus more on social oppression than it currently does.
Ignorance as a subject worthy of investigation in its own right has, by the way, become so academically important that next year Routledge is publishing a big reference volume on the topic, the “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies,” edited by Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey. The book covers numerous varieties of ignorance over a wide range of different areas and divergent etiologies, but my own invited contribution (“Global White Ignorance”) appears in the section on ignorance and social oppression. In this chapter, I argue that modernity is cognitively marked by a broad pattern in which whites generally endorse racist views (one type of ignorance) in the period of formal global white domination, and then (roughly from the post-World War II, decolonial period onward) shift to the endorsement of views that nominally decry racism, but downplay the impact of the racist past on the present configuration of wealth and opportunities (another type of ignorance). So remedial measures of racial justice are not necessary, and white privilege from illicit structural advantage, historic and ongoing, can remain intact and unthreatened. Insofar as mainstream “white” American political philosophy ignores these realities (and there are, of course, praiseworthy exceptions, like Elizabeth Anderson’s “The Imperative of Integration”), it can be judged, in my opinion, to be maintaining this tradition.
G.Y.: So, would it be fair to say that contemporary political philosophy, as engaged by many white philosophers, is a species of white racism?
C.M.: That would be too strong, though I certainly wouldn’t want to discount the ongoing influence of personal racism (now more likely to be culturalist than biological — that’s another aspect of the postwar shift), especially given the alarming recent findings of cognitive psychology about the pervasiveness of implicit bias. But racialized causality can work more indirectly and structurally. You have a historically white discipline — in the United States, about 97 percent white demographically (and it’s worse in Europe), with no or hardly any people of color to raise awkward questions; you have a disciplinary bent towards abstraction, which in conjunction with the unrepresentative demographic base facilitates idealizing abstractions that abstract away from racial and other subordinations (this is Onora O’Neill’s insight from many years ago); you have a Western social justice tradition that for more than 90 percent of its history has excluded the majority of the population from equal consideration (see my former colleague Samuel Fleischacker’s “A Short History of Distributive Justice,” which demonstrates how recent the concept actually is); and of course you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.
Rawls himself said in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible.
G.Y.: So, part of what I hear you saying is the need to make important metaphilosophical shifts regarding the whiteness of political philosophy, in particular, and the whiteness of the profession of philosophy, more generally. What are a few of these shifts?
C.M.: Yes, by its very nature, political philosophy is going to have a meta-dimension, in that the drawing of the boundaries of the political is itself often a political act. The best-known example in recent decades of such a challenge is feminist political theory, which classically argued that the conventional liberal division between the public and the private spheres needed to be rethought, since as it stood, gender injustice was obfuscated by the relegation of the family to the “apolitical” realm of the domestic. More recently, we’ve seen the challenges of postcolonial theory and queer theory, though they haven’t had much of an impact in philosophy circles, and certainly not in analytic political philosophy circles.
The radically divergent perspectives on reality of blacks and whites are a straightforward reflection of the radically different realities in which they live.
In the case of race, we need to do various things, like exposing the racism of most of the important liberal theorists (such as Kant), asking what the actual color-coded (rather than sanitized for later public consumption) versions of their theories are saying (are blacks full persons for Kant, for example?), and how these racially partitioned norms justified a white-dominant colonial world. (See my “Kant and Race, Redux” in the forthcoming special issue on race and the history of philosophy of the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal.) As I said above, we need to recognize and investigate the workings of racial liberalism/imperial liberalism, since this is the actual version of liberalism that has made the modern world and that, more subtly today, is continuing to help maintain its topography of illicit racialized privilege and disadvantage. In the title of one of my papers, we need to be “Liberalizing Illiberal Liberalism,” a reconstruction of liberal theory.
Likewise, we need to ask how it came about, and has come to seem normal, that “social justice” as a philosophical concept has become so detached from the concerns of actual social justice movements. Certainly it’s not the case that if people in the civil rights community were planning a conference on racial justice next month that they would be heatedly debating which philosophers to invite! Rather, mainstream political philosophy is seen as irrelevant to such forums because of the bizarre way it has developed since Rawls (a bizarreness not recognized as such by its practitioners because of the aforementioned norms of disciplinary socialization). Social justice theory should be reconnected with its real-world roots, the correction of injustices, which means that rectificatory justice in non-ideal societies should be the theoretical priority, not distributive justice in ideal societies. Political philosophy needs to exit Rawlsland — a fantasy world in the same extraterrestrial league as Wonderland, Oz and Middle-earth (if not as much fun) — and return to planet Earth.
G.Y.: How does your work speak to the situation going on in Ferguson, Mo., and in other places in the United States where racial injustice and conflict is flaring?
C.M.: I would say that unfortunately it brings home the extent to which — in the second decade of the 21st century, nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War and with a black president in office — black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their (our) second-class citizenship. The “racial contract” as a theory of the actual non-ideal workings of society and the polity is obviously going to be a far more illuminating framework for understanding and redressing these problems than an idealized social contract that takes socially recognized moral equality and corresponding equitable treatment, independent of race, to be the norm.
G.Y.: Finally, you mentioned the alarming information coming out of cognitive psychology regarding implicit bias. I recall reading recently an article that suggested some black Americans think that the Secret Service’s failure to protect President Obama is due to the fact that he is black. Why do you think that these perceptions continue to exist? Are they reasonable? I ask this especially because your epistemology of ignorance position does suggest that black people will have a different epistemic perspective on reality — right?
C.M.: The radically divergent perspectives on reality of blacks and whites are a straightforward reflection of the radically different realities in which they live. Segregation has deep cognitive consequences as well as the more familiar consequences for one’s chances at a good education, home ownership in good neighborhoods, being able to escape gang violence, etc. That doesn’t mean that black majority opinion is always going to be right, of course. But you would expect that those more subject to the inequities of the system will in general be the ones more likely to have a realistic perspective on it. Whites have not merely an unrepresentative group experience, but a vested group interest in self-deception. Sociologists have documented the remarkable extent to which large numbers of white Americans get the most basic things wrong about their society once race is involved. (See, for some hilarious examples, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism Without Racists.”) My favorite example, from a poll about three years ago, is that a majority of white Americans now believe that whites are the race most likely to be the victims of racial discrimination! If that’s not an epistemology of ignorance at work, I don’t know what would be.