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April 15, 2008

Northwestern professor addresses race relations

Charles W Mills, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, delivered an impassioned lecture to a crowd of roughly 30 students last week on the intersection of race relations, ethics, and Marxism. Mills discussed racial stereotypes and racial subordination, both of which he argued underlie some of Western philosophy’s central assumptions. His first book The Racial Contract (1997) grew out of his interest in bigotry and human rights in North America.

Mills argued against the widely accepted notion of a race-blind social contract, claiming that what truly exists is a “racial contract” that has created white privilege and allowed the exploitation of non-whites. He claims that the modern world and popular notions of social-contract theory have been “shaped by European colonialism and global white supremacy.” He cited racial undertones in the writings of widely taught social theorists and philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

These conceptions are still prevalent in the U.S. today, Mills said, in the form of an ingrained racism that has led to severe inequalities between whites and African-Americans. He said that because whites have more power in American society, they have a “moral and civic responsibility” to work against racism and prevailing inequality.

Citing work by Yale professor Thomas McCarthy, Mills called for “a national rethinking” similar to that which Germany experienced in the years after World War II and argued that America has to work through these issues, rather than pretend they do not exist.