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Charles Mills' "Black Rights, White Wrongs"
A persuasive critique of Kant and Rawls that leaves us ... I'm not sure where
I always think of the Roosevelt Institute as offering the avant-garde of progressive coalition thought, so for weeks now I’ve been puzzling over a document they put out titled “A New Paradigm for Justice and Democracy: Moving beyond the Twin Failures of Neoliberalism and Racial Liberalism,” and I was thinking of writing a defense of racial liberalism in response. But after a couple of re-reads, it became clear to me that the authors were using the term “racial liberalism” in a way that was a bit unfamiliar to me, and to an extent, the position I wanted to defend was not the one they wanted to attack.
Specifically, they are referring to the concept as developed by Charles W. Mills, who I’d never read but had heard mentioned more and more frequently over the past few years.
So I picked up Mills’ last book “Black Rights / White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism” which turns out to be much more up my alley than I’d expected. Mills is a philosopher who died just this past September (see Liam Kofi Bright’s remembrance) and I was a philosophy major in college, so I can actually understand what he’s writing about and its significance to the field. The “racial liberalism” that he’s critiquing is specifically an academic/intellectual tradition in which the central figures are Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, and while other things come up in the different essays that make up the book, that’s really what it’s about — Kant and Rawls and the people working in the Kantian and Rawlsian traditions and how we should understand that project.
And in terms of what it is, this is a real tour de force. I thought Susan Moller Okin’s 1989 book “Justice, Gender, and the Family” (which I was assigned as an undergrad) had already left Rawlsian political theory in disarray, and when you bring Mills’ critique (which I was not) into the frame, it’s really crushed. I wish I’d been taught Mills in school and I hope this profoundly changes how these specific subjects are treated in academia going forward.
At the same time, I agree with Mills’ critique of this contractarian thinking maybe even more than he does — it’s genuinely a huge mess! — which is to say that precisely because Rawlsian philosophical liberalism is such a terrible guide for thinking about major political issues, I’m pretty skeptical that further critiquing it is going to help us either.
Contractarian liberalism and its history
I can’t do 300 years of intellectual history in one blog post, but suffice it to say that in modern moral philosophy there are two main traditions and then several smaller ones.
One tradition is consequentialism (associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) and the other is deontological rights-based thinking associated with Kant. The differences between these ideas are nuanced, but they often get expressed in terms of the famous trolley problem, with consequentialists more inclined to say that you kill the one guy in order to save the five and the deontologists leaning more on the distinction between doing and allowing.
For Mills’ purposes, the important thing about Kantian thinking is not this trolley business but its association with social contract political philosophy. This was a big deal during the heyday of the Enlightenment, fell into some disrepute, and then was revived in a big way by John Rawls in his book “A Theory of Justice.”
I think the general perception in academia is that political philosophy was regarded as a dead subject in Anglo-American philosophy by the middle of the 20th century. Some philosophers like A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell were outspoken on social and political issues, but they didn’t have philosophical systems that they were pushing in order to address political topics beyond a kind of general rationalist and cosmopolitan worldview. Rawls revived social contract thinking, and in doing so revived political philosophy as a subject. An incredibly large share of 20th century political philosophy is just people either expounding Rawlsian ideas or arguing with them.
And Mills’ book is very much in that vein. He argues that philosophy as a field has been basically covering up the significance of Kant’s profound racism and that Rawls and the whole Rawlsian tradition are engaged in “white ignorance” and obfuscating many of the key issues in politics.
Mills on Kant
Kant’s ethical works that normally get assigned don’t say anything about race and are all about how people need to respect each other and treat each other as ends-in-themselves and not means. But he has other writings that are pioneering works in the then-new field of scientific racism that are normally just ignored.
Mills argues, convincingly in my view, that this makes a hash out of the actual intellectual history of the western world. The western states that operated under the influence of liberal political thought in the 19th and 20th centuries did so in some extremely racist ways. Those practices of enslavement, indigenous genocide, and imperialism are often portrayed as contrary to the ideas of mainstream liberalism. But the fact that one of the leading lights of said liberalism was also super-racist puts this into doubt. Mills says we should read Kant’s ethics in light of his racism and see that he arguably really was saying that Black people and Native Americans were sub-humans who are excluded from the Kantian circle of mutual respect. There’s a tradition in American jurisprudence that reached its apogee in Dred Scott which says that we are living in a society of white people who have rights as per the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but that Black people do not have rights that white people are bound to respect.
A big part of Mills’ intellectual project is trying to urge people to take this racial contract vision of herrenvolk liberalism seriously and not just see it as a sloppy error or casual bias. Kant’s contractarian is a game of insiders and outsiders in which he explicitly leaves non-human animals as outsiders whose interests we don’t have to care about. Liberal polities often acted as if non-white people are also outsiders whose interests we don’t have to care about — in Mills’ view, in part because this is what foundational figures in liberalism said.
And this is what Mills means by racial liberalism — liberalism for white people. To use an example that’s not in Mills’ book, after the Civil War, factions emerged in the Republican Party. The more moderate faction that opposed Ulysses Grant and wanted to throw African American rights under the bus for the sake of white reconciliation was called the Liberal Republicans. Because even the anti-slavery version of American politics was split between a faction that actually cared about Black rights and a faction whose primary interest in halting the spread of slavery was to preserve western lands for white settlement.
Mills on Rawls
There’s no hidden file drawer of Rawls doing racism.
Mills’ point about Rawls is that it’s extraordinary to publish a book in 1972 on the subject of justice and have nothing to say about racial justice. Not everyone is attuned to every issue, but even the most clueless white person imaginable who was born in 1921 couldn’t possibly have missed Strom Thurmond’s third-party run in 1948, the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the murder of Emmett Till, the congressional fights over civil rights in 1957 and 1960, the subsequent and more successful fights in 1964 and 1965, the George Wallace campaign in 1968, and the assassinations and riots that also happened that year. This was a big deal in a kind of obvious way.
And Mills shows that in subsequent works, Rawls would kind of occasionally concede that he’s skipping over something important. But then across a multi-decade career, he never gets around to addressing it. Instead, when he expands his vision to consider international relations in “The Law of Peoples,” things get worse as he’s sweeping aside the way that many modern states are post-colonial entities while many others are settler-states founded on expropriation.
In “Ideal Theory as Ideology,” Mills argues that these errors and omissions all stem from Rawls’ weird methodological choice to focus on what he calls “ideal theory.” In ideal theory, you abstract away from all present-day problems and just ask in the abstract what an ideal society would look like. Since an ideal society wouldn’t be racist, you wouldn’t need to ask how you dismantle racism or address the legacy of racism. So problem solved!
But this is really dumb. Reviewing the list of preconceptions of academic ideal theory, Mills writes:
Now look at this list, and try to see it with the eyes of somebody coming to formal academic ethical theory and political philosophy for the first time. Forget, in other words, all the articles and monographs and introductory texts you have read over the years that may have socialized you into thinking that this is how normative theory should be done. Perform an operation of Brechtian defamiliarization, estrangement, on your cognition. Wouldn’t your spontaneous reaction be: How in God’s name could anybody think that this is the appropriate way to do ethics?
I think that this is absolutely correct, and the ideal theory concept — while a sort of interesting intellectual puzzle — is ultimately fruitless. I’ve been out of philosophy for a while, but my sense is that this critique is one that a lot of people are converging on from some different directions. I’m familiar with Jacob Levy’s “There Is No Ideal Theory” (arguing, among other things, that “wholly ‘ideal’ normative political theory is a conceptual mistake”) and Gerald Gaus’ “The Tyranny of the Ideal.” I think Mills is going to win this fight and his chapter/essay focusing in on it is the best prosecution of the case that I’ve read.
Why not consequentialism?
To the extent that I had a problem with the book, it’s that by the end I felt like I was watching Mills repeatedly pummel an opponent who’d already been knocked out. Can’t we move on from saying “Rawls and Kant are bad” and talk about consequentialist thinkers’ treatment of race? Can’t we try to outline a positive agenda instead of a critical one? Then I stepped back and remembered my own education, and given the sheer volume of work in political philosophy that happens on these themes, there’s nothing wrong with a book-length critique.
But I do question Mills’ assertion that Kantian thinking has “triumphed over the previously dominant consequentialist (welfare-based/utilitarian) version of liberalism originally associated with Jeremy Bentham and the two Mills, James and John Stuart.”
I think that in practice, if not in academic philosophy, consequentialism continues to be extremely important. The burgeoning effective altruist movement is grounded in consequentialism. Most of the leading thinkers in the animal welfare movement are grounded in consequentialism. And the hugely influential field of economics largely operates within a consequentialist framework. There is potentially fruitful work to be done in the vein of a racial justice critique of consequentialism, but I think there’s also a potential argument that we should push even deeper on Mills’ critique of Kant and see deontology as inherently inspired by insider/outsider thinking in a flawed way.
Certainly this is my preferred way of thinking about the various lines of criticism of Rawls that appear in Mills, Okin, Charles Taylor, and others — that trying to operate at an extremely high level of abstraction is both blinding us to a huge share of the problems that people care about and also obscuring the extent to which we need practical solutions not just like “ideally this problem wouldn’t even exist?”
The reparations question
Mills did not do a policy book nor even a work of constructive philosophy where he lays out a new system. He writes that “that — large — task will have to await another time and another book,” but unfortunately he fell ill and passed away, so we won’t get that book.
There are really only two specific policy issues that Mills mentions as important, but beyond the capacity of Rawlsian liberalism to grasp: affirmative action and reparations.
Mills’ treatment of affirmative action is, to me, a bit odd:
He writes that “Affirmative action is basically dead, most whites regarding it as unfair ‘reverse discrimination.”
Then later he refers to “the effective defeat of affirmative action policies.”
Now depending on what the Supreme Court does with the current litigation Harvard is embroiled in, those claims may become true. But the reason there is a Harvard affirmative action lawsuit is that affirmative action is widely practiced by American universities including some very well-known ones like Harvard. And Harvard’s position in the litigation is supported by the Biden administration. Mills is right that affirmative action is very unpopular, but that didn’t stop the entire California Democratic Party from fighting for the losing side in an affirmative action ballot initiative.
In other words, affirmative action is not dead (at least not yet), and it seems to me to enjoy more support at elite levels — and specifically among academics — than among the mass public.
This is obviously a complicated subject, but I think the big frustration with affirmative action from a racial justice standpoint is that it just hasn’t proven to be a lever that actually accomplished very much. Thanks to affirmative action, my quarter-Cuban self from an affluent family in New York got to be a below-average student at Harvard rather than going to Cornell or the University of Chicago, but an admissions boost at the most selective colleges in America does not actually do anything to help the majority of Black or Hispanic people who are not attending selective colleges at all. And here, I do think a Rawlsian perspective at least raises a pertinent question — shouldn’t our efforts at justice be aimed at helping the most disadvantaged people?
Mills also writes favorably of reparations at several points, though also pessimistically about white people’s views of it. I wish Mills had lived to write a thorough philosophical treatment of reparations, as I think it could use one.
But I would just say in the vein of reparations being underrated that at this point, what I think the reparations movement needs is a clearer political program. In my lifetime, I’ve seen two boomlets of interest in reparations — one sparked by Randall Robinson’s 2000 book “The Debt” and then a more recent one sparked by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations.” These are both good, intellectually influential works. But they don’t advocate for a specific program. Instead, we’re stuck on H.R. 40 which calls for creating a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans originally introduced over 30 years ago by John Conyers and now led by Sheila Jackson Lee. As a political intervention in 1989, I think Conyers’ bill was a masterstroke. As something to talk about in 2021, I feel like it’s a political booby trap — passing it would not help anyone in any concrete way, but it’s also unpopular, so Democratic leaders keep stopping it from coming up for a vote. Some day, it’s just going to be weaponized as a wedge issue by Republicans.
It’s not 1989 anymore and racial justice is a big topic for philanthropy — MacKenzie Scott Bezos alone gave over $500 million to these causes last year. Funders should convene their own panel of experts and stakeholders to think in a comprehensive way about what they want to advocate for. In “From Here to Equality,” William Darity and Kirsten Mullin outline a program for $11 trillion in cash payments from the federal government to the Black descendants of people held in bondage in the United States. Is that, all things considered, a smart thing to spend time and energy pushing for? Is there a smaller program that might be easier to achieve but that would still be worthwhile? I think the points about the pitfalls of ideal theory cut in both directions to an extent, and you don’t achieve racial justice by counting the angels on the head of a needle.
Mills’ political vision
If Mills is not doing a policy book, he is definitely not doing a political strategy book.
But he does at a couple of points stop to consider what kind of political vision would fulfill his ideas of an appropriately radical and de-racialized liberalism. He says that “the natural constituency is, of course, the population of color would be the obvious beneficiaries of the end or considerable diminution of white supremacy” but also that “they will clearly not be able to do it on their own” and will need white allies.
He sketches two possible paths to this:
A “centrist strategy” that offers the argument “that in a sense racism hurts everybody given the costs of racial exclusion.”
A “left strategy” that aims “to disaggregate the white population and target in particular those whites who benefit less from white supremacy: the working class, the poor, the unemployed.”
Later, Mills mentions Piketty’s work on inequality and offers the “hope that an increasing number of the white poor/white working class may begin to wake up to the reality that the prospects for their children and grandchildren under plutocratic capitalism — albeit white-supremacist plutocratic capitalism — are not that great either.”
This seems very appealing to me. But the people who I normally see citing Mills are people who I also normally see saying that my ideas are wrong and bad. I don’t want to rehash points I’ve made a million times before (see here, here, here, and here for some non-paywalled flavors), but this sounds to me primarily like a program for race-neutral economic redistribution. Not necessarily dogmatic adherence to the idea that policy needs to be “race-blind” at all times and in all respects, but also not a politics centered on a push for an $11 trillion reparations campaign. After all, while it’s true that “the population of color” would in some sense “be the obvious beneficiaries of the end … of white supremacy,” it’s not the case that Hispanics or Asians or other ethnic or cultural minority groups would benefit from Darity’s reparations program. Even if you are simply seeking non-white allies, you need an agenda with broader appeal.
Ending by accusing Mills of lacking a realistic political program feels churlish since I’m not sure I’ve ever read a philosophy book that concluded with a convincing case for a realistic political program. “Black Rights / White Wrongs” is primarily a scholarly critique of the (white) social contract tradition in philosophy and it is brilliant. I was not assigned Mills as a philosophy student but I hope that future students will be. The job of taking these ideas and formulating them into a practical theory of action rests with people like the Roosevelt Institute whose “new paradigm” paper is what inspired me to read Mills. But I’m skeptical that they have come up with something that works here or really that there has been any significant conceptual advance in terms of an ambitious-but-plausible policy agenda for American social justice since Martin Luther King’s poor people’s campaign or the Philip Randolph / Bayard Rustin “freedom budget.”