Charles W. Mills, a London-born, Jamaican-raised philosopher whose incisive criticism of liberalism and race both foreshadowed and framed contemporary debates about white supremacy and structural racism, died on Sept. 20 in Evanston, Ill. He was 70.
The cause was cancer, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he once taught, said in announcing his death.
Dr. Mills argued that racism played a central role in shaping the liberal political tradition, a system that, he said, supposedly valued individual rights and yet for too long excluded women, the working class and people of color. He swung for the fences, writing critiques of Plato, John Rawls and everyone in between.
“He was one of the most important philosophers ever to treat race and racism as their primary subject,” Chike Jeffers, a professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Canada, and a former student of Dr. Mills, said in an interview. “He did so much to move the field forward, and to get people excited about thinking 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 the Western political tradition, was one of its features, and that racism represented a political system every bit as coherent and intentional 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 posited that one of liberalism’s core tenets, the “social contract,” a theoretical agreement in which individuals ceded some rights in exchange for protection by the government, was designed explicitly to exclude people of color. (He readily noted the debt he owed to feminist political theory, especially the philosopher Carole Pateman and her 1988 book “The Sexual Contract.”)
“What Mills does is to deconstruct the domain 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 singular figure to put his finger on the pulse of these contradictions, and to show 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 asked, why do so few in the field talk about it? In part, he said, it’s because of what he called “the epistemology of ignorance,” or the learned aversion of white people 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 a meeting of the American Philosophical Association,” he said in a lecture last year at the University of Michigan, “you have to put on dark glasses, or else you’ll get snow blindedness from the expanse of white faces.”
Rigorous and persuasive, his work was also free of the jargon and obscurantism that bedevils so much of modern philosophy. He could also be disarmingly funny, often poking fun at himself or his profession.
“If you are a member of the American Philosophical Association and you don’t use the word ontology in a talk, there’s someone from the A.P.A. sitting in the back of the room and your membership card will be yanked,” he quipped during his lecture.
Yet for all his knife-sharp insight into the shortcomings of the liberal tradition, he was not willing to dismiss it entirely, in part because he believed the alternatives were so much worse — including, he pointed out, the chauvinistic nationalism on the rise across Europe and North America over the last decade.
It was, he conceded, a position that sometimes got him in trouble with philosophers even further to his left.
“One can readily appreciate why, given this history, some radical thinkers have given up on liberalism altogether and have also given up on people like Charles Mills, who still insist that liberalism can be freed,” he said in his lecture. “So now there’s a bunch of folks who cross the street when they see me coming.”
Charles Ward Mills was born on Jan. 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 cricket player, 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 its faculty of social sciences. In the 1970s he served as chairman of a government commission tasked with reforming the country’s electoral process.
Winnifred Mills was equally prominent. A nurse by training, she rose to become the head of the Jamaican Y.W.C.A.
A bookish child, Dr. Mills said he regretted spending more time reading the works of J.R.R. Tolkien than Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary Franco-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 A.P.A. meeting recently? I rest my case.”
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 in the 1970s went through a period of radical politics, similar to the one that swept across the United States and Europe in the 1960s.
After graduating, he briefly taught high school physics 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 wrote five more books; a seventh, “The White Leviathan,” is in production.
In his recent work, Dr. Mills went beyond his initial critique to search for ways to salvage aspects of liberalism — human rights, dignity, the rule of law — in a truly egalitarian way.
It was, he believed, an urgent project, 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-styled post-Enlightenment critics — taking for granted Liberal-Democratic guarantees — can afford to be sneering at Enlightenment norms,” he wrote in Artforum in 2018. “The protections of those rights and freedoms can no longer be assumed.”
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