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


Charles W. Mills, a London-born Jamaican-raised philosopher whose sharp criticism of liberalism and race both foreshadowed contemporary debates about white supremacy and structural racism, died September 20 in Evanston, Illinois. He was 70.

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

dr. Mills argued that racism played a central role in shaping the liberal political tradition, a system that, he said, would value individual rights and yet for too long excluded women, the working class and people of color. He waved at the gates and wrote critiques of Plato, John Rawls and everyone in between.

“He was one of the most important philosophers to ever treat race and racism as their main topic,” said Chike Jeffers, a philosophy professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and a former student of Dr. Mills in an interview. . “He’s done so much to move the field forward and get people excited about race and racism.”

dr. Mills established himself as a leading critic of Western political theory with his first book, “The Racial Contract” (1997). In it, 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 as coherent and deliberate as liberal democracy.

“White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today,” he wrote in the book’s first sentence.

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

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

If racism is so central to modern political theory, Dr. Mills, why are so few people in the field talking about it? In part, he said, it’s because of what he called “the epistemology of ignorance,” or white people’s learned aversion 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 in a lecture at the University of Michigan last year, “you have to put on dark glasses or else you will be snow-blind from the expanse of white faces.”

Rigorous and persuasive work was also free from the jargon and obscurantism that intoxicate so much of modern philosophy. He could also be disarmingly funny and often make fun of himself or his profession.

“If you’re a member of the American Philosophical Association and you don’t use the word ontology in a lecture, someone from the APA will sit in the back of the room and your membership card will be deducted,” he joked during his lecture. .

But for all his razor-sharp understanding of the liberal tradition’s shortcomings, he was unwilling to reject it completely, partly because he believed the alternatives were so much worse—including, he pointed out, the chauvinistic nationalism prevalent across the globe. world is emerging. Europe and North America in the past ten years.

It was, he admitted, a position that sometimes got him into trouble with philosophers even further to his left.

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

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

His father, who had been a leading Jamaican cricketer, later became the head of the government department at the University of the West Indies, Mona, the school’s Jamaican campus, and the dean of the social sciences faculty. In the 1970s, he chaired a government commission charged with reforming the country’s electoral process.

Winnifred Mills was equally prominent. Trained as a nurse, she grew up to be the head of the Jamaican YWCA

dr. A child of books, Mills said he regretted spending more time reading JRR Tolkien’s works than Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary French-Caribbean philosopher. But he also joked that his love of science fiction prepared him for a life in philosophy.

“It could just be that I’m a nerdy alienated weirdo, and nerdy alienated weirdos are disproportionately attracted to both fields,” he wrote in a biographical essay in 2002. “Have you been to an APA meeting recently? rest.”

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

After graduation, he briefly taught physics in high school before moving to Canada to attend graduate school at the University of Toronto, which had one of North America’s best programs in Marxist philosophy. He received his doctorate in 1985.

dr. Mills 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 five more books; a seventh, “The White Leviathan”, is in production.

In his recent work, Dr. Mills moved beyond his initial critiques and looked for ways to salvage aspects of liberalism—human rights, dignity, the rule of law—in a truly egalitarian way.

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

“This is no longer a time when self-proclaimed post-Enlightenment critics – who take for granted liberal-democratic guarantees – can afford to mock the norms of the Enlightenment,” he wrote in Artforum in 2018. “Protecting those rights and freedoms can no longer be assumed.”

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