The Racial Contract

Charles W. Mills (Author)


The Racial Contract puts classic Western social contract theory, deadpan, to extraordinary radical use. With a sweeping look at the European expansionism and racism of the last five hundred years, Charles W. Mills demonstrates how this peculiar and unacknowledged contract has shaped a system of global European domination: how it brings into existence whites and non-whites, full persons and sub-persons, how it influences white moral theory and moral psychology; and how this system is imposed on non-whites through ideological conditioning and violence. The Racial Contract argues that the society we live in is a continuing white supremacist state.

Holding up a mirror to mainstream philosophy, this provocative book explains the evolving outline of the racial contract from the time of the New World conquest and subsequent colonialism to the written slavery contract, to the separate but equal system of segregation in the twentieth-century United States. According to Mills, the contract has provided the theoretical architecture justifying an entire history of European atrocity against non-whites, from David Hume's and Immanuel Kant's claims that blacks had inferior cognitive power, to the Holocaust, to the kind of imperialism in Asia that was demonstrated by the Vietnam War.

Mills suggests that the ghettoization of philosophical work on race is no accident. This work challenges the assumption that mainstream theory is itself raceless. Just as feminist theory has revealed orthodox political philosophy's invisible white male bias, Mills's explication of the racial contract exposes its racial underpinnings.

--Jennifer Hochschild, Princeton University "Small Axe: A Journal of Criticism"

Product Details

Cornell University Press
Publish Date
June 21, 1999
5.4 X 0.5 X 8.4 inches | 0.5 pounds

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About the Author

Charles W. Mills is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, also from Cornell, and From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism.


"Offers a bold conceptualization of the racial order and a critique of the way it has been (mis)represented within the domain of scholarship.... Mills cuts through the shibboleths and the mystifications that pervade both popular and academic discourse on race.... The Racial Contract offers a theoretical framework that ought to serve as the starting point for any serious study of race in American society.... At a time when 'the epistemology of ignorance' is ascendant, we can be grateful for a book that speaks the unpalatable truth."

--American Journal of Sociology

"This compelling and even explosive book argues that white racism is itself a political system with its own levels of rights, duties, benefits, burdens, etc.... Sure to provoke a heated debate far beyond the field of political philosophy, this bold and wide-ranging study makes a clear and convincing case for the view that systematic racial oppression was not an anomaly sullying otherwise universalistic assumptions about individual rights, but the context in which theorizing about such rights occurred."

--The Front Table

"Courageously creative."

--Social Theory and Practice

"Mills uses the idea of the social contract to argue that racially structured discrimination is a norm, rather than a deviation from the ideal.... Framed by a lucid discussion of the modern global exploitation of nonwhites is Mills's appeal to standpoint epistemology to maintain that the racial contract is a naturalized version of social contract theory."


"An ambitious book.... Mill's racial contract thesis is so convincing that one wonders why it hasn't been explored until now in the precincts of mainstream political philosophy. But that's his point. The racial contract's effectiveness lies in its very invisibility."

--In These Times

"This is a significant and compelling work.... Mills turns our attention to the racial domination and exploitation that have been equally pervasive features of the history of liberalism.... A major contribution."


"The Racial Contract is an excellent book.... It is a testament to Mills's expertise as a philosopher, a scholar, and a downright intelligent writer that he has managed to pull off so comprehensive, informative, and persuasive a work in an elegant 133 pages (excluding notes).... He achieves this explanation through some of the clearest prose I have encountered in recent philosophical literature."

--Lewis Gordon "Small Axe: A Journal of Criticism "

"I recommend this book as an important and timely reminder of the ways in which a philosophy which ignores race is bound up with the privileging of whiteness. This is a lesson that is still to be learnt, even within the context of feminist philosophy."

--Women's Philosophy Review

"A very important book.... The Racial Contract has the potential to radically challenge many of us to reevaluate how we think about social contract theory. As well, to take the arguments that Mills makes is to be prepared to rethink about the concept of race and the structure of our political systems. This is a very important book indeed, and should be a welcome addition to the ongoing discussions surrounding social contract theory."

--Teaching Philosophy

"An important work of philosophy that is at the same time short and accessible.... Mills succeeds admirably in arguing his case for the existence of a racial contract. That he can do this in a way that is rigorous, passionate, and accessible is an important achievement."

--Philosophy in Review