Charles W. Mills, Philosopher of Race and Liberalism, Dies at 70

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He argued that achromatic supremacy was a diagnostic of the Western governmental tradition, and that racism represented a governmental strategy arsenic intentional arsenic wide democracy.

The philosopher Charles W. Mills was “one of the astir   important   philosophers ever   to dainty  contention    and racism arsenic  their superior   subject,” a erstwhile  pupil  said.
Credit...Sam Alcoff

Clay Risen

Published Sept. 27, 2021Updated Sept. 28, 2021, 12:17 p.m. ET

Charles W. Mills, a London-born, Jamaican-raised philosopher whose incisive disapproval of liberalism and contention some foreshadowed and framed modern debates astir achromatic supremacy and structural racism, died connected Sept. 20 successful Evanston, Ill. He was 70.

The origin was cancer, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, wherever helium taught, said successful announcing his death.

Dr. Mills argued that racism played a cardinal relation successful shaping the wide governmental tradition, a strategy that, helium said, supposedly valued idiosyncratic rights and yet for excessively agelong excluded women, the moving people and radical of color. He swung for the fences, penning critiques of Plato, John Rawls and everyone successful between.

“He was 1 of the astir important philosophers ever to dainty contention and racism arsenic their superior subject,” Chike Jeffers, a prof of doctrine astatine Dalhousie University, successful Halifax, Canada, and a erstwhile pupil of Dr. Mills, said successful an interview. “He did truthful overmuch to determination the tract forward, and to get radical excited astir reasoning astir contention and racism.”

Dr. Mills established himself arsenic a starring professional of Western governmental mentation with his archetypal book, “The Racial Contract” (1997). In it helium argued that achromatic supremacy, acold from being a bug successful the Western governmental tradition, was 1 of its features, and that racism represented a governmental strategy each spot arsenic coherent and intentional arsenic wide democracy.

“White supremacy is the unnamed governmental strategy that has made the modern satellite what it is today,” helium wrote successful the book’s archetypal sentence.

He posited that 1 of liberalism’s halfway tenets, the “social contract,” a theoretical statement successful which individuals ceded immoderate rights successful speech for extortion by the government, was designed explicitly to exclude radical of color. (He readily noted the indebtedness helium owed to feminist governmental theory, particularly the philosopher Carole Pateman and her 1988 publication “The Sexual Contract.”)

“What Mills does is to deconstruct the domain of achromatic governmental mentation by showing that Black radical and radical of colour were ne'er meant to beryllium included,” George Yancy, a philosopher astatine Emory University, said successful an interview. “He is the singular fig to enactment his digit connected the pulse of these contradictions, and to amusement however they are experienced successful the lives of Black radical and radical of color.”

If racism is truthful cardinal to modern governmental theory, Dr. Mills asked, wherefore bash truthful fewer successful the tract speech astir it? In part, helium said, it’s due to the fact that of what helium called “the epistemology of ignorance,” oregon the learned aversion of achromatic radical to the racism inherent successful their ain privilege.

But, helium added, it was besides due to the fact that governmental doctrine arsenic a assemblage was astir wholly white.

“If you spell to a gathering of the American Philosophical Association,” helium said successful a lecture past twelvemonth astatine the University of Michigan, “you person to enactment connected acheronian glasses, oregon other you’ll get snowfall blindedness from the expanse of achromatic faces.”

Rigorous and persuasive, his enactment was besides escaped of the jargon and obscurantism that bedevils truthful overmuch of modern philosophy. He could besides beryllium disarmingly funny, often poking amusive astatine himself oregon his profession.

“If you are a subordinate of the American Philosophical Association and you don’t usage the connection ontology successful a talk, there’s idiosyncratic from the A.P.A. sitting successful the backmost of the country and your rank paper volition beryllium yanked,” helium quipped during his lecture.

Yet for each his knife-sharp penetration into the shortcomings of the wide tradition, helium was not consenting to disregard it entirely, successful portion due to the fact that helium believed the alternatives were truthful overmuch worse — including, helium pointed out, the chauvinistic nationalism connected the emergence crossed Europe and North America implicit the past decade.

It was, helium conceded, a presumption that sometimes got him successful occupation with philosophers adjacent further to his left.

“One tin readily admit why, fixed this history, immoderate extremist thinkers person fixed up connected liberalism altogether and person besides fixed up connected radical similar Charles Mills, who inactive importune that liberalism tin beryllium freed,” helium said successful his lecture. “So present there’s a clump of folks who transverse the thoroughfare erstwhile they spot maine coming.”

Charles Ward Mills was calved connected Jan. 3, 1951, successful London, wherever his Jamaican parents, Gladstone and Winnifred Mills, were postgraduate students. The household returned to Jamaica earlier Charles turned 1, and helium spent the remainder of his puerility successful Kingston.

His father, who had been a starring Jamaican cricket player, aboriginal became the caput of the authorities section astatine the University of the West Indies, Mona, the school’s Jamaican campus, and the dean of its module of societal sciences. In the 1970s helium served arsenic president of a authorities committee tasked with reforming the country’s electoral process.

Winnifred Mills was arsenic prominent. A caregiver by training, she roseate to go the caput of the Jamaican Y.W.C.A.

A bookish child, Dr. Mills said helium regretted spending much clip speechmaking the works of J.R.R. Tolkien than Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary Franco-Caribbean philosopher. But helium besides joked that his emotion of subject fabrication prepared him for a beingness successful philosophy.

“It could conscionable beryllium that I’m a nerdy alienated weirdo, and nerdy alienated weirdos are disproportionately attracted to some fields,” helium wrote successful a biographical effort successful 2002. “Have you been to an A.P.A. gathering recently? I remainder my case.”


He entered the University of the West Indies successful 1971, wherever helium studied physics. He besides became politically active, arsenic did galore of his classmates — Jamaica successful the 1970s went done a play of extremist politics, akin to the 1 that swept crossed the United States and Europe successful the 1960s.

After graduating, helium concisely taught precocious schoolhouse physics earlier moving to Canada to be postgraduate schoolhouse astatine the University of Toronto, which had 1 of North America’s champion programs successful Marxist philosophy. He received his doctorate successful 1985.

Dr. Mills taught astatine the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Northwestern University earlier joining the CUNY Graduate Center successful 2016.

His matrimony to Elle Mills ended successful divorce. He is survived by his brother, Raymond Mills.

After “The Racial Contract,” Dr. Mills wrote 5 much books; a seventh, “The White Leviathan,” is successful production.

In his caller work, Dr. Mills went beyond his archetypal critique to hunt for ways to salvage aspects of liberalism — quality rights, dignity, the regularisation of instrumentality — successful a genuinely egalitarian way.

It was, helium believed, an urgent project, fixed the increasing spot of achromatic supremacy successful parts of the world, and helium urged his chap extremist philosophers not to cull liberalism entirely.

“This is nary longer a clip erstwhile self-styled post-Enlightenment critics — taking for granted Liberal-Democratic guarantees — tin spend to beryllium sneering astatine Enlightenment norms,” he wrote successful Artforum successful 2018. “The protections of those rights and freedoms tin nary longer beryllium assumed.”

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