Charles W. Mills, philosopher of race and liberalism, dies at 70

Charles W. Mills, a London-born and Jamaican-raised philosopher whose incisive critique of liberalism and race foreshadowed and framed c...


Charles W. Mills, a London-born and Jamaican-raised philosopher whose incisive critique of liberalism and race foreshadowed and framed contemporary debates on white supremacy and structural racism, died on September 20 in Evanston, in the ‘Illinois. He was 70 years old.

The cause was cancer, said the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, where he taught, announcing his death.

Dr Mills argued that racism played a central role in shaping the liberal political tradition, a system which he said supposedly valued individual rights and yet, for too long, excluded women, the class worker and people of color. He swung for the fences, writing critiques of Plato, the American political theorist John rawls, a contemporary of Dr. Mills, and everyone in between.

“He was one of the most important philosophers to have treated race and racism as their main subject,” said Chike Jeffers, professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and former student. Dr. Mills, on a phone. maintenance. “He’s done so much to move the field forward and to get people thinking about race and racism. “

Dr Mills established himself as one of the leading critics of Western political theory with his first book, “The Racial Contract” (1997). He argued that white supremacy, far from being a bug in Western political tradition, was one of its hallmarks, and that racism represented a political system just as coherent and intentional as liberal democracy.

“White supremacy is the nameless political system that made the modern world what it is today,” he wrote in the first sentence of the book.

He postulated that one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism, the “social contract,” a theoretical agreement in which individuals cede certain rights in exchange for government protection, was designed explicitly to exclude people of color. (He easily noted the debt he owed feminist political theory, particularly philosopher Carole Pateman and her 1988 book “The Sex Contract.”)

“What Mills is doing is deconstructing the realm of white political theory by showing that blacks and people of color were never meant to be included,” said George Yancy, philosopher at Emory University in Atlanta. , in an interview. “He is the singular figure to put his finger on the pulse of these contradictions, and to show how they are experienced in the lives of blacks and people of color. “

If racism is so central to modern political theory, Dr. Mills asked, why are so few people on the ground talking about it? This is in part, he said, because of what he called “the epistemology of ignorance,” or the scholarly aversion of whites to the racism inherent in their own privilege.

But, he added, it was also because political philosophy as a profession was almost entirely white.

“If you go to an American Philosophical Association meeting,” he said at a conference last year at the University of Michigan, “you have to put on dark glasses or you will be blind. snow because of the expanse of white faces. “

Rigorous and persuasive, his work is also free from the jargon and obscurantism that so haunt modern philosophy. He could also be disarmingly funny, often making fun of himself or his profession.

“If you are a member of the American Philosophical Association and you do not use the word ontology in a speech, there is someone from the APA sitting at the back of the room and your membership card will be withdrawn,” he joked during his lecture. .

Yet for all his insight into the shortcomings of the liberal tradition, he was unwilling to dismiss it entirely, in part because he believed the alternatives were much worse – including, he stressed, the Chauvinistic nationalism on the rise across Europe and North America over the past decade.

It was, he conceded, a position that occasionally got him in trouble with philosophers even further to his left.

“One can easily see why, given this history, some radical thinkers have completely abandoned liberalism,” he said in his lecture, “and also abandoned people like Charles Mills, who still insist that liberalism can be liberated. So now there’s a bunch of people crossing the street when they see me coming.

Charles Ward Mills was born January 3, 1951 in London, where his Jamaican parents, Gladstone and Winnifred Mills, were graduate students. The family returned to Jamaica before Charles was 1 and spent the rest of his childhood in the capital, Kingston.

His father, who had been a prominent Jamaican cricketer, became the head of the government department of the University of the West Indies, Mona, the school’s Jamaican campus, and the dean of its social science faculty. In the 1970s, the elder Mr. Mills chaired a government commission tasked with reforming the country’s electoral process.

Winnifred Mills was just as important. A nurse by training, she took over the management of the Jamaican YWCA

As a child, Dr Mills said he regretted spending more time reading the works of JRR Tolkien than Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary Franco-Caribbean philosopher. But he also joked that his love of science fiction had prepared him for a life in philosophy.

“It could just be that I’m an insane nerdy nutcase, and insane nerdy weirdos are disproportionately drawn to both fields,” he wrote in a biographical essay in 2002. “Did you attend one? APA meeting recently? I rest my case.

Dr Mills entered the University of the West Indies in 1971 and studied physics there. He also became politically active, as did many of his classmates – Jamaica in the 1970s went through a period of radical politics, similar to that which swept through the United States and Europe in the 1960s.

After graduation, he briefly taught high school physics before moving to Canada to study at the University of Toronto, which offered one of North America’s top programs in Marxist philosophy. He obtained his doctorate in 1985.

Dr. Mills has taught at the University of Oklahoma; the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Northwestern University before joining the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016.

His marriage to Elle Mills ended in divorce. He is survived by his brother Raymond Mills.

After “The Racial Contract,” Dr. Mills wrote five more books; a seventh, “The White Leviathan”, is in production.

In his recent work, Dr Mills has gone beyond his initial critique to seek ways to salvage aspects of liberalism – human rights, dignity, the rule of law – in a truly egalitarian manner.

It was, he believed, an urgent project, given the growing strength of white supremacy in some parts of the world, and he urged his fellow radical philosophers not to reject liberalism entirely.

“This is no longer the time when self-proclaimed post-Enlightenment critics – taking liberal democratic guarantees for granted – can afford to mock Enlightenment standards,” he wrote in Artforum in 2018. “The protections of these rights and freedoms can no longer be assumed. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: Charles W. Mills, philosopher of race and liberalism, dies at 70
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