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The House that Charles Built: Moral Clarity for Racial Justice

Charles Mills liked to tell a joke. “I think of mainstream philosophy as something like Antarctica,” he would say. “It’s a giant, frozen, hostile, white continent with a few scattered figures of color. Under global warming, Antarctica is going to turn brown before philosophy does.”

The defiant and peerless Jamaican political philosopher has died. He was seventy. Over a long career as a public intellectual, Mills used his gut-punching wit and moral clarity in defense of racial justice.

Mills was best known for his first and now canonical 1997 book The Racial Contract, in which he began a lifelong crusade against the unspoken but tacitly accepted centrality of whiteness in modern liberal thought and practice. At best, he argued, modern liberalism was indifferent to racial inequality. At worst, it was actively committed to reproducing it. Yet, his towering philosophical contribution was aimed not at throwing liberalism into the dustbin as one might expect. Much to the dismay of his critics, Mills set about reconstructing it.

Mills graduated from the University of Toronto in 1985 with a PhD in Philosophy, though by then he was more interested in Marxism than critiquing John Rawls and his liberal antecedents. His dissertation was on the concept of ideology in the work of Marx and Engels and for years he identified with the precepts of historical materialism. That started to change in the early 1990s when he came to believe, as he put it in a recent interview with the political scientist Michael Dawson, “a philosophical investigation into race need not take a stand” on how race had become central to the U.S. social order. Historians and social scientists can duke it out over causal questions; the task of philosophy must be to get clear about our normative commitments.

He would go on to author six more books elaborating on the foundational philosophical arguments of The Racial Contract, including Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race and Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. He authored and co-authored hundreds of articles and essays and was the recipient of numerous awards including, most recently, the American Political Science Association’s Benjamin E. Lippincott Award for The Racial Contract. His writing will also be remembered for its style: he ceded no ground on the sophistication of his arguments even as he was insistent on reaching a wide audience. He wrote passionately yet accessibly in defense of a morally just world.

Read entire article at Dissent