Written by: Yazmin Torres
Despite current progress towards an equal society, there still exist intrinsic racial biases within Western culture today. We can see such culture manifested in tragic forms, such as racial profiling and the consequential killing of many innocent African-American men. The deeply-rooted racial history of America dates back at least to the 17th century when English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published a social contract that both justified and propagated white supremacy.
More recently, in 1997, Caribbean author Charles Mills wrote the book, The Racial Contract, that analyzes the truth of Hobbes’ social contract, its implications on modern-day racism and offers solutions to bring us to a more just world. Similarly, American theorist Nancy Fraser published her work entitled, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” where she explores the division between the general public sphere and outside (marginalized) groups, as well as how these groups can interact more progressively.
Both Mills and Fraser highlight the importance of recognizing white privilege, promoting closure of the racial divide, and being brave enough to construct a new, all-inclusive Western culture of equality.
Before discussing modern-day racism, or solutions to it, we need to understand the difference, similarity, and relationship between Hobbes’ social contract and Mills’ definition of a racial deal. According to Hobbes’s social contract, all men are created equal and have abided to such an agreement to acquire certain social benefits like safety and protection. On the other hand, the racial contract denies social benefits to specific groups of people based on phenotypical, genealogical, or cultural characteristics.
According to Mills, the racial contract has provided the theoretical structure justifying an entire history of European atrocity against nonwhites. While many people argue that racism evolved as an unintended result due to the imperfections of people, Mills dissects the work of contractarian social Hobbes to say that his 17th-century document published as a social contract is in actuality a racial contract.
An important distinction to make between the two contracts, as Mills emphasizes, is that Hobbes’ social contract explains the normative (the way things should be), while Mills’ racial contract theory (a conceptualization of the racial commitment itself) describes both the descriptive and prescriptive (the way words are, how they came to be and how they should be). In short, Mill’s vivid account shows that individual rights in Hobbes’ social contract have been reserved only for whites.
In his contract, Hobbes claims that all humans began in what is known as a state of nature, a state of war in which every man had full rights to do whatever he chose. There was, however, an exception to this: white men. According to Hobbes, “there was never such a time, nor condition of war as this” except for “the savage people in many places of America” (Hobbes 393). In response to this, Mills comments:
the natural state of nature is for nonwhites; for whites, the state of life is hypothetical. The conflict between whites is the conflict between those with sovereigns: those who already (and have always been) in society. From this conflict, one can extrapolate (gesturing at the racial abyss, so to speak) to what might happen in the absence of a ruling sovereign. But really, we know that whites are too rational to allow this to happen to them. So the most notorious state of nature in the contractarian literature– the brutal war of all against all– is a nonwhite figure, a racial object lesson for the more cool whites, whose superior grasp of natural law (here in its prudential rather than altruistic version) will enable them to take the necessary steps to avoid it and not behave as “savages.” (Mills 66)
The specific rhetoric Hobbes uses, Mills makes clear, encourages the idea that whites are equal amongst each other, but not amongst nonwhites. By pinning the state of nature on nonwhite figures, Hobbes embedded racist values into his social contract. Even more than this, by neglecting the culture and history of nonwhites, Hobbes presents a false reality that only whites are sociopolitical beings, saving the world from a state of savagery.
This status entitles whites, then, to extended rights and privileges. The myriad of racial bias within Hobbes’ social contract proves that it is indeed a racial contract. So, from this point, I will be referring to Hobbes’ social contract and Mills’ renaming of it as the racial contract as the same entity that I will refer to as the racist-social contract (RSC).
Mills goes on to develop a racial contract theory that differs from the racist-social contract because of its equalizing, normative account.
In the normative account of the racist-social contract, there is an extension of special privileges to whites and with agreement these from nonwhites. The RSC justifies this by recognizing whites as fully human, while regarding nonwhites as “subhuman.” On the other hand, Mills’s racial contract theory encourages a normative account that includes everyone and treats people equally. On this topic, Mills explains how his racial contract theory helps equality:
The “Racial Contract” as a theory puts race where it belongs– at center stage– and demonstrates how the [social] polity was, in fact, a racial one, a white-supremacist state, for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing. (Mills 57)
Pointing out the racist intentions of the RSC and its longstanding impact on Western culture, Mills’ racial contract theory equips us to recognize the wrongs of the RSC and move toward a norm that aims to correct the longstanding oppression– an equalizing standard that doesn’t punish people for what they cannot control.
Even though there have been laws to end discrimination, segregation, and slavery, the unwritten RSC still has evident and severe implications on our society. Systemic racism, although more subtle, still exists in our country today. One of its manifestations is racial profiling. Looking at the case of Trayvon Martin, it becomes devastatingly obvious that the RSC between whites is still a thriving and powerful force– still strong enough to excuse murder!
On the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student in the back. On the night of the shooting, Trayvon Martin, unarmed and wearing a hoodie, walked down the street. The self-appointed neighborhood watchman Zimmerman, called 911 to report “a suspicious person.” Despite dispatcher’s instruction not to approach the person, Zimmerman (armed) did so anyway, resulting in the altercation that led to Trayvon’s fatal shooting.
Zimmerman was charged with Martin’s murder but acquitted at trial on self-defense grounds. The world responded to the unjust verdict in a show of solidarity by wearing hoodies that said, “I am Trayvon.” Still, Zimmerman was free and brazen enough to post the murder weapon for sale online. Worse yet, it sold for $250,000, evidently to a subscriber of the racist-social contract. Zimmerman’s surprising acquittal and subsequent profit for murder expains the existence and propagation of the unspoken white, racist-social agreement.
If Mills were to analyze Trayvon’s death using his racial contract theory, his descriptive account would be that Trayvon died because he was black. The jury’s ability to overlook the visible criminal actions of Zimmerman, as well as Zimmerman’s evident lack of remorse, Mills would say is a product of the racist-social contract that has caused whites to distance themselves from the full humanness of nonwhites, and in doing so, supported the false white reality of nonwhites as “dangerous criminals.” Mills coins this inverted reality as the epistemology of ignorance; he describes this as:
a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are in no way accidental but prescribed by the terms of the Racial Contract [RSC], which requires a specific schedule of structured blindness and opacities to establish and maintain the white polity. (Mills 19)
The implication of this statement is enormous! This epistemology shows that, like in the Zimmerman case, the SRC has purposefully aimed to create a perception that neglects, ignores, or fails to understand the reality of nonwhites. About Mills’ normative, ideal account, he would respond that there should be perceived equality between whites and nonwhites that eliminates the existence of murder due to racial profiling. With realities that do not oppose each other, whether white or nonwhite, there would be no profit from murder, and equal punishment for killing all people would be something with which everyone could agree.
As the RSC continues to manifest itself in our society, what kind of practical solutions to systemic domination are available? A solution I propose, by Mills, is that whites need to recognize the long history of oppression they have upheld, address the special privileges granted to them on behalf of their whiteness and educate themselves on the ways that the RSC has been able to thrive for centuries. Similarly, Mills communicates in his book that “Realizing a better future requires not merely admitting the ugly truth of the past– and present– but understanding the ways in which these realities were made invisible, acceptable to the white population” (Mills 92).
Whites can actively fight ignorance by coming to a state of awareness of the special privileges granted to them rather than actively (or passively) benefitting from the RSC. In this way, whites can use their right to help transform the norm of white domination.
But what happens if people are unable or unwilling to understand modern-day racism? To some people who have always lived a life of privilege, particularly whites, they may be ignorant of the truth experienced by nonwhites.
Suppose whites have never personally experienced racial injustice. In that case, they may not understand the magnitude– or even the existence– of the problem and realize the need to question how it affects others. Due to this, they may tend to generalize their reality as the same reality of nonwhites.
Consequently, they will be unable to sympathize with the injustices faced by nonwhites. In another case, some whites may want to hold on to their white privilege, and to do so, continue to classify nonwhites as inferior purposefully. They will deny nonwhites as being fully “human,” By distancing themselves from the full “humanness” of nonwhites, they feel justified in their racial bias toward them.
To this, I respond using the work of Nancy Fraser to show that a crucial component in breaking down the divide between whites and nonwhites is building personal, human connections. In Fraser’s practice, she identifies the fact that marginalized groups are excluded from a universal public sphere and thus form their open fields, called counter publics. Fraser declares the importance of multiple-publics residing in an area to promote the discussion and openness of different ideas and cultures:
Likewise, under conditions of social equality, the porousness, outer-directedness, and open-mindedness of the public could promote inter-cultural communication. After all, the concept of society presupposes a plurality of perspectives among those who participate within it, thereby allowing for internal differences and antagonisms and discouraging reified blocs. (Fraser 70)
Like Fraser, I believe that whites need to immerse themselves in different cultures and lifestyles– they cannot remain within the confines of the socioeconomic community they have always known. Suppose whites and nonwhites open their minds to those who are different. In that case, the opportunity opens for them to build connections with and to recognize that those who are different are in actuality fully and equally human. Realizing this can foster a platform of mutual respect between whites and nonwhites, and with this, the ideas of nonwhites will be more important to those who normally would consider them an enemy.
In the current technological age, the world wide web is connecting us like never before. Social media is available worldwide and to all races; this is the perfect opportunity to connect with and learn about each other. Social media has also served as a source of information unfiltered by the RSC, in which citizens post about racial discrimination and atrocities still occurring. The abundance of such injustices proves that we still have much work to do, and, fortunately, we may finally have the tools to began to close the vast divide among us.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually
Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56. Web.
Hobbes, Thomas, G. A. J. Rogers, and Karl Schuhmann. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. London: Continuum, 2005. Print.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell U Press, 2014. Print.