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Book Review

Conceptualising an imposed ‘racial contract’ at the heart of western social relations

THE RACIAL CONTRACT by Charles W Mills. Pub: Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1997. pp: 192. Price: $19.95 (Hbk).
Aisha Geissinger

Racism is one of the defining characteristics of the twentieth century. Even societies built on the Enlightenment belief in equality of mankind seem unable to bring about an end to racial discrimination. The call for human equality originated with Enlightenment theorists such as John Locke, who tried to explain the origins of human societies, the state and morality by positing a ‘state of nature’ in which all men are equally free. When men came together to form human societies, he claimed, they did not cease to be equal. Therefore, the state should give the same protection and justice to all. However, in practice, most Europeans imbued with the values of the Enlightenment were seemingly able to deny freedom and equality to non-Europeans without a qualm.

For those who want to understand how this could be the case, Charles Mills’ recent book, The Racial Contract, is illuminating. Mills begins the discussion by stating that “White supremacy is the unnamed political system which has made the modern world what it is today”(p. 1). White supremacy is not usually perceived as a distinct modern political system in the way that communism or democracy is because it is the background against which modern political theorizing takes place. As Mills points out, for the last five hundred years the world has been “foundationally shaped by the realities of European domination and the gradual consolidation of global white supremacy” (p. 20). Whether recognized as such or not, white racism is a political system, because it regulates socio-economic privilege, distribution of opportunities and wealth, rights and duties.

When the social-contract theorists stated that men are free and equal, they meant white men. Therefore, Mills considers the social contract to be in fact a racial contract, which was intended to extend and protect white privilege and power. In his view, theorizing about a racial contract is useful for several reasons. The idea of a racial contract is a way of making the political system of white supremacy visible and connecting it to ‘mainstream’ political theory. It is a tool for mapping white global supremacy, understanding its workings, and enabling people to devise effective strategies for social change. Moreover, the racial contract is an actual historical event. Its development can be traced in Papal bulls, treaties, laws, European discussions about colonialism, and debates about the humanity of ‘non-whites’.

The racial contract is described as a system which divides people into categories of ‘white’ and ‘non-white’. ‘Whites’ are considered to be full persons (allowing for gender limitations) while ‘non-whites’ are defined as different, inferior, and subordinate. In this system, the moral and legal rules which govern relations between ‘white’ men either do not apply at all, or apply only in part, to dealings between ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites’. The purpose of the racial contract is to allow ‘whites’ to exploit the bodies, land and resources of ‘non-whites’.

Mills notes that the categories ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ are socio-political constructions and can change somewhat. For example, the Irish, Slavs, and European Jews have been discriminated against by ‘whites’ on racial grounds, but are now generally treated as ‘white’. Nonetheless, he contends that the basic outline of the racial contract is not changed by these relatively minor shifts. All ‘whites’, he argues, are beneficiaries of the racial contract, though not all are signatories. Those who go along with the contract and do not oppose it should be considered signatories, while those relatively few ‘whites’ who refuse the terms of the contract are, in the words of the Ku Klux Klan, ‘race traitors’. ‘Non-whites’ cannot be seen as consenting to the contract because they are objects rather than subjects of the agreement. ‘Whites’ consent because they see non-whites through a screen of prejudices and fantasies which amount to ‘consensual hallucination’.

Mills writes that the roots of the racial contract lie in the ‘us versus them’ mentality which underlies the voyages of ‘discovery’ (or more accurately, conquest) of European ‘explorers’ (tourists), and colonialism. Initially, the opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was seen in theological, geographical and cultural terms: Christian, civilized Europeans versus non-European, pagan barbarians. Accepting Christianity was considered to be rational, while remaining non-Christian was seen as a sign of bestial irrationality.

The Enlightenment and the rise of secularism translated the dichotomy of Christian-heathen into racial terms. Mills notes that the social contract theorists saw ‘non-whites’ as having remained in the state of nature after ‘whites’ had left it and established societies and states. Therefore, it was claimed that Africans could be enslaved ‘for their own good’. Colonialism was seen as justified because Europeans regarded themselves as morally, as well as technologically, economically and militarily, superior to ‘non-whites’. Nonetheless, he notes that racism within the ‘non-white’ category also exists. European racism was a result of a particular set of social and political circumstances, not an inevitable development. Mills’ concept of the ‘racial contract’ provides a useful framework for considering many questions facing Muslims in the modern world. For instance, the debate over whether or not Islam has any place in Europe is evidently informed at least in part by the racial contract. Muslims are sometimes puzzled by western tolerance of Jewish practices such as kosher slaughter coupled with opposition to Islamic halal slaughter, and bemoan the apparent favouritism and inconsistency. Attempts are made to advocate government funding of Muslim schools, or to fight restrictions on Muslim dress in schools and the workplace on the basis of legal equality and freedom of religion.

However, discrimination against Muslims is quite consistent with the terms of the racial contract. The rules have been rewritten to allow Jews into the ‘white’ category, but Muslims will not be allowed to sneak in behind them. Moreover, since the notion of the moral superiority of Europe has not been discarded, westerners will not allow Muslim to define the limits of legal equality, freedom of religion, or even what racism is. The racism which anti-racism laws aim to prevent is merely that which prevents ‘non-whites’ from aspiring to the lifestyle which ‘whites’ supposedly enjoy. There is little room for ‘non-whites’ to define their own aspirations independently of the ‘white’ model (or even for ‘whites’ to choose a ‘non-white’ lifestyle).

However, Mills’ racial contract theory does not really address complicating factors in racial power equations, such as religion. According to Mills’ analysis, one would expect to find that African Muslims face the most discrimination by the west, while lighter complexioned Muslims face the least. In fact, Balkan Muslims face genocide. This is probably related to the question of why some ‘whites’ are considered less ‘white’ than others, which Mills does not explore in detail. The answer may lie in the fact that such ‘off-white’ groups are mainly non-Protestant. Protestants have historically equated their approach to religion with rationality and civilization, while stereotyping Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians as superstitious and backward. Jews were perceived as still further removed from Protestant rationality, and other non-Christians as still further distant. Religious and racial prejudices have continued to be intertwined, so that Islam was ‘raced’ as ‘non-white’, regardless of the actual complexions of its adherents at any given place and time. Hence, it is seen as irrational and uncivilized. The call for the ‘reform’ of Islam from certain corners in the west is thus not neutral or disinterested; it is a product of the racial contract, which assigns the power to define what is moral and rational to Europeans.

The Racial Contract also does not provide much insight into the origins and dynamics of racism among non-whites. While some of this is traceable to colonialism, it is evident that racism has existed for millennia. The Qur’anic account of the first instance of racism - the Shaytan’s claim of superiority over Adam because he was made of smokeless fire while Adam is made of earth - makes it clear that such an attitude originates in prideful rebellion against the Creator. Therefore, racism can only be eliminated by Islam (sincere submission to Allah). The Racial Contract is useful for analysing relations between Europeans and non-Europeans for the last five hundred years, but it gives little insight into racism in other contexts.

Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 5

Muharram 15, 14201999-05-01

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