Is Charles Mills’ Account of Racial Injustice Essentialist?

The persuasiveness of Charles Mills’ paper Racial Liberalism (2007) arises from the fact that it plays off one’s pre-theoretic beliefs about the lacunae between the ideals of liberalism as a political philosophy and the practices of the modern liberal-democratic state. In the twenty-first century, the growing awareness that liberal-democracies have restricted the access of “non-white” persons to human rights has revealed so-called “inalienable” and “universal” rights as mere idealizations. In this context, one is easily beguiled by explanations of racial injustice such as the one advanced by Mills’ which holds “white [male] privilege” and the theory and practice of liberalism responsible for it. However, through a critical analysis of Mills’ account of racial injustice, this paper considers the possibility that the proposed de-racialization of liberalism could very well exacerbate the problem that it seeks to solve. In doing so, it highlights the importance of avoiding essentialist accounts of group identity as well as structuralist and overly deterministic accounts of history in non-ideal theorizations of social injustice and thus challenges Mills’ account of racial injustice.

The outlook of orthodox liberal philosophy is determined by ideal theory, an analytical framework which systematically devalues the empirical world relative to the worlds of ideas. Orthodox liberalism idealizes liberal-democracy. It takes liberal-democracy for granted as the model just society and uses it as a lens from which to view the empirical world. Consequently orthodox liberalism regards the actually existing liberal-democratic polity as a “neutral state equally responsible to all its citizens” and assumes that it emerged as the result of an inclusive agreement amongst pre-political moral equals to found “a sociopolitical order” reflecting the “equal personhood of individuals.”

Since the framework of non-ideal theory, an approach which emphasizes the empirical  dimensions of social phenomena, captures the actually existing modern state, Mills’ interpretation of liberal-democracy radically departs from the vision orthodox liberalism. By turning to the realm of practice, it sees that the actual liberalism that has been “historically dominant since modernity” is a “racial liberalism” which has concealed its own relegation of “non-whites to an inferior category” by grounding its “all-inclusive” schedules of rights, duties and government responsibilities on a phantasmic ideal of universal personhood. Such an interpretation is part of a broader strategy to “de-racialize racial liberalism” which, by re-conceptualizing its abstract and idealized norms (e.g., freedom, equality, rights, justice and social contract) in light of liberal-democracy’s history of injustice, attempts to re-theorize the state as an entity brought into existence through a “racial contract” which structurally denies the advantages of universalist liberal norms to “people of colour.”  By exposing liberalism as a racialized liberalism established through a racial contract, Mills wagers that the de-racialization of liberalism will pave the way for a “nonracial liberalism and a genuinely inclusive social contract.”  Specifically, by destroying “the mystified individualist social ontology” that hitherto blocked “an understanding of the political forces determining the […] restricted and exclusionary application” of orthodox liberalism’s abstract ideals, Mills predicts that the task of de-racializing liberalism will compel orthodox philosophers to confront its dark legacy. 

Mills’ analysis of racial injustice as well as his wager regarding the effects of liberalism’s de-racialization on orthodox philosophers are troublesome, however. It faults orthodox liberalism and “white” persons for failing to enact the impossible: the perfectly just society established by a non-coercive social contact which genuinely realizes universal freedom, equality, and human rights. An inquiry into the causes of racial injustice is beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is important to acknowledge that, in the last analysis, racial injustice is not the result of racial liberalism as theory or mode of praxis because the phenomena of racial injustice predates the modern state and orthodox liberalism. For example, Plato’s Republic is replete with racial epithets against the non-Greek barbarians whom were viewed as inferior and indeed sub-human relative to the Greek race. The Spartans, moreover, appealed to the perceived inferiority of the Laconians to justify its subjugation and enslavement of the “helots.” Racial liberalism and the modern state, in other words, are not root causes of racial injustices because racial domination predates their emergence.

Mills’ misidentification of the root causes of racial injustice reveals the limitations of the particular version of non-ideal theory he adopts. His non-ideal account of racial injustice in the modern state betrays a totalizing and universalist narrative which reduces the genesis of racial injustice and the victimization of “non-whites” to a single emergent condition in liberal democracies. The “whites,” a social group whose sole purpose is to maintain their universal dominance at the expense of “non-whites,” are the cause of racial injustice in liberal-democracy according to Mills’ account. This is neither to deny the existence of racial injustice nor of white privilege but rather to illuminate the way in which Mills’ interpretation of history through non-ideal theory is itself guilty of a form of descriptive idealization: essentialism. Mills caricatures racial injustice in liberal-democracy as a simple phenomenon which arises when “white” people appeal to the abstract ideals of orthodox liberalism to mask their own use of state power to maintain their positions of dominance relative to “non-whites.” Mills views “whites” and “non-whites” in essentialist terms, effectively casting all “whites” as the guilty perpetrators of racial injustice in liberal democracies and all “non-whites” as the innocent victims. In doing so, Mills’ account gives rise to an extremely reductive—and extremely polarizing—dialectic of “us” and “them” which will likely exacerbate racial tensions by essentializing and hypostatizing group differences.  In reality, however, the experience of all “whites” and all “non-whites” are irreducible to such essentialist postures because “white” and “non-white” are just one of the many intersecting identities that position the individual in the modern state.

Through an analysis of Mills’ account of racial injustice in modern liberal democracies,  this paper has not only considered the possibility that Mills’ remedy for racial injustice might perpetuate it, it has also highlighted a few tendencies that an non-ideal approach to social and political phenomena should avoid if it hopes to avoid the idealization of history. In the pursuit of normative ideals, social and political philosophy should proceed through the lens of non-ideal theory, since social and political phenomena do not spring from abstract ideals but rather emerge in particular historical contexts. However, if my hypothesis is correct, if racial injustice cannot be reduced to liberalism or the secret agenda of “white” persons seeking to maintain their privilege, an effective solution to racial injustice must avoid such deterministic and essentializing accounts of its genesis or risk advancing a solution which fails to resolve that which it sets out to remedy.


Works Cited

Mills, Charles W. “Racial Liberalism.” Modern Language Association 123, no. 5 (2008): 1380-97.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *