Reconciling the Racial Contract

How to best understand the conflicting legacy of social contract theorists and the role their philosophies play in shaping common understandings of race today.

In his book, The Racial Contract, Charles Mills takes my favorite type of perspective on the work of various social contract theorists before him, an extremely critical one. He points out a huge overlooked reality of their entire case, the fact that the social contract does not apply to all people, but rather all white people. In doing so he embarrasses many of the great Western philosophers by making glaringly obvious just how uncoupled from reality their theories are, while his assertions invite an entire restructuring of the way we view the relationship between states and their citizens. By exhibiting the lack of any real relationship between the classic social contract theories and reality, Mills provides a much more inclusive, accurate perspective which serves to transform previous theories into obsolete relics of a previous philosophical era.

If someone like myself who is white and used to living in a pluralistic, multicultural society were to superficially read Hobbes, or many of the other social contract theorists, I would likely come to the conclusion that while we might disagree on certain forms of government, we all seem to be in agreement on certain foundational ideals of equality. According to Hobbes, “Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind” while Locke says that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. He who believes himself the master of others does not escape being more of a slave than they.” While he does allow for the reality of oppression here, Locke’s theory still appears to rest on a fundamental assumption of equality — people are only slaves because they’ve lost their liberty somehow. This works for me (leaving out the whole “men” part, sexual contract implications, etc.) as I tend to believe that all humans are born as equal beings, not possessing any inherent rights or advantages over one another.

Mills kind of ruins this whole fantasyland by making the rather simple point that in reality, while these men may have written about everyone being equal — they really only meant white people. He argues that “the moral and juridical rules normally regulating the behavior of whites in their dealings with one another either do not apply at all in dealings with nonwhites or apply only in a qualified form (depending in part on changing historical circumstances and what particular variety of nonwhite is involved)” This point is hard to dispute, as it is obvious (which Mills also points out) that philosophy is an overwhelmingly white discipline, with much of its foundational ideas on social contracts originating from the enlightenment age of the white, western European world. Therefore, reading the social contract theorists and keeping in mind the historical context it is clear that when they wrote “man is born free” or “nature has made men so equal” it went without saying that they meant “white men are born free” and “nature has made white men so equal”.

This revelation seems to beg the question of whether the classic western social contract theories must be thrown out entirely, or whether they can in fact be “updated” to reflect a more inclusive modern world. I, for one, feel this is a false dichotomy. To throw out the theories entirely and never teach them anymore would be to deny the philosophical underpinnings of our society today. I must have learned about Locke as early as middle school, and how his ideas were crucial in inspiring the American revolution. These ideas are deeply ingrained in our national mythology. Thomas Jefferson’s perfectly reflected the exact irony present in classic social contracts, as well as the fundamental paradox on which our country is founded. When he said that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”, it is clear that he must have possessed such a great cognitive dissonance as to believe that him and his white colleagues counted as men, but not the black slaves he owned. I might have some qualms about the sanitized and watered down history we teach in our primary schools, yet I can’t bring myself to argue that we should simply throw it all out — ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it.

While we ought to teach children about the ideas on which our country was founded, we also ought to inform them that Jefferson had a different idea about who was human than we do today. We should simply be honest. Students studying politics and philosophy should not be made ignorant of our history of thought, however racially tinged and hypocritical it might be. Philosophers like Locke and Hobbes who espoused equality while believing the opposite by today’s standards should still be taught, but they also ought to be put in proper context.

The idea of “updating” these theories to reflect more modern values is almost as absurd to me as the idea of cutting the theories out of curriculums in general. To argue that Hobbes and Locke did in fact mean all people, men and women, white, black, and brown in spite of them writing “men” and the underlying assumption of the day being “white men” is to artificially transform these theories something they are not. While a different beast than censorship, the intentional revision of history is just as dishonest and destructive in my opinion. How then, would we explain Jefferson’s state of mind to the curious student who inquires about his owning slaves while preaching equality? He certainly didn’t believe them to be his equals, nor did he even free them upon his death as some of his colleagues did. There is no contorting such a historical figure to make him a man ahead of his time, when in reality he was simply a man of his time. We must be honest about the fact that our history is one of men who believed in equality for all within their own group, not throughout all of humanity.

Only from this place of honesty and understanding can the true paradox of social contracts be revealed allowing philosophy to move forward. We must still teach the social contractarians, but they must be followed up by readings of material such as The Sexual Contract, The Racial Contract, Between the World and Me, The New Jim Crow, or other works examining the racial legacy left behind both in thought and in practice. While it might be impossible to reconcile Mills with those philosophers on whose shoulders he stood, we must also not pull out the foundation from under him — flawed as it may be. Only through an understanding of the evolution of thought throughout history can one truly understand the role played by social contracts. They may be obsolete, both in age and in content, but they are still a necessary stepping stone in reaching subsequent conclusions regarding the nature of humanity and our institutions.

“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.” In this passage from Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at an interesting point regarding society in the U.S. today. We believe ourselves exceptional, a belief which is fostered by a mythical narrative of American history, one fraught with heroism, conquest, and the fight for liberty. This would be to take the social contract theorists literally, to accept their statements at face value and interpret them for ourselves, applying them to the modern world and ascribing egalitarian ideals to the works of men who were anything but.

In reality, however, we must do what the narrative does not want us to, we must “inquire too much” as Coates puts it. This is to learn the theories, to fully understand the role they played in shaping racial hierarchies — particularly our country today. I suppose if we were to wipe out these theories in general, to declare them obsolete, racist, and no longer useful then this myth would in fact become easier to believe in. Without the ability to examine theories we now believe severely hypocritical, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to recognize that hypocrisy and it consequently becomes easier to accept the idea of our nation’s exceptional moral authority, to bleach away the sins of our past.

After calling out roughly the same social contract theorists that Mills did, Coates goes on to argue this very point — that understanding supersedes ignoring, “What we need to do, then, is to identify and learn to understand the workings of a racialized ethic. How were people able consistently to do the wrong thing while thinking that they were doing the right thing?” So in this spirit, I argue that as obsolete and racist as the old social contract theories may be, our only hope of escaping their hypocrisy and attaining some sliver of the moral exceptionalism we believe ourselves to possess is to acknowledge them for all they’re worth, to thoroughly study them and their inconsistencies with reality.

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