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The Social/Racial Contract, Pt 1

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

By Dr. Josef Ben Levi

Presented by Omni-University



White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. But, though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years.  And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have, for the most part, been written and designed by whites who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as a political form of domination. Yet, it is the background against which other political systems are highlighted.


A word here about how race is socially constructed as well as the way that Charles Mills avoids essentializing whiteness as though any race could have done this. Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract-- ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as are the names of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu and America's founding fathers.


Charles Mills makes three simple claims: the Essential, the Conceptual, and the Methodological: (A) the existential claim: white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; (B) the conceptual claim: white supremacy should be thought of as a political system itself; (C) the methodological claim: as a political system, white supremacy can be theorized as based on a "contract" between whites, illuminatingly and actually, a Racial Contract.


The Racial Contract is political, "moral", and epistemological. It sets up a "moral" hierarchy. The general purpose of the contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group in contrast to the non-whites as a group. For the latter, it provides for the exploitation of their body, their land, and other resources, as well as the denial of equal socio-economic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. The key is that all whites benefit, even though not all whites agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. 


Mills argues that the Racial Contract is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created by over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me-no matter how many times I read it- is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political, and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world, i.e., the openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove non-whites less than human. It must always be remembered that these things- these philosophies and these conquests- happened at the same time and often by the same people. We also must remember: European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human.


(Click here to read Part 2.)


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