By Brooks Kirchgassner
The recent issue of Critical Philosophy of Race (Vol 5. Issue 1) features a mini symposium on the work of renowned philosopher Charles Mills (CUNY Graduate Center) which would be of interest to those who are familiar with his work as well as students and scholars interested in the philosophy of race, class, and gender. In this post, I summarize the debate between Mills and fellow philosophers Shannon Sullivan (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) and Kathryn T. Gines (Pennsylvania State University).
In the first article, Shannon Sullivan analyzes Mills’s oeuvre from an “intersectional approach,” which she argues helps us understand Mills’s transition from classical Marxism to what he terms a “Black radical liberalism” (2, 15), which he explains in his latest book, Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2017; check out a recent interview with Mills on racial liberalism by Neil Roberts).
According to Sullivan, an intersectional reading of Mills demonstrates that he does not abandon or substitute class for race but instead sees them as playing related parts in the struggle against white racism. And this is the crucial point of intersectionality—it does not treat one form of identity and oppression as more important or at the expense of something else, such as emphasizing class as more important than race, or race as more important than gender identity, class, etc. (8) Rather, intersectionality looks at the simultaneous ways in which the experiences of race, class, gender identity, and other subject-positions operate together in power structures.
In contrast to Sullivan’s big-picture look at Charles Mills’s overarching philosophical focus, Kathryn T. Gines’ article analyzes one of Mills’s essays, “Intersecting Contracts,” which is a chapter in the co-authored book with Carol Pateman Contract and Domination (Polity, 2007). Gines outlines Mills’s critique of social contract theory through what he calls the “racia-sexual contract (RSC),” which problematizes the analytical separation of racism and white-male patriarchy in mainstream political thought (20, 22). Rather than treat these phenomena as two distinct but unfortunate byproducts of liberalism, that is, deviations from the Ideal notion of what a liberal society should be, Mills wants us to see that they are ineluctable results of a socio-political and economic system built on the ontological denial of nonwhite persons by white people. In his effort to expose the racial (white) liberal order of the RSC, Gines argues that “Mills readily acknowledges that women of color have long engaged questions about intersecting identities and interlocking systems of oppression” (21). Despite Mills’s intersectional arguments that form the foundation of the RSC, Gines highlights that at more than one point in the essay Mills contends “race generally trumps gender” (23, 24, 27). In essence Gines criticizes Mills for minimizing the issue of “patriarchal relations” between nonwhite men and nonwhite women (25). How can Mills claim to be indebted to nonwhite women theorists while asserting race over gender?
Mills responds to Sullivan’s and Gines’s articles by defending his emphasis on the role race played in the construction of power relationships and identities in modernity, both individually and socially. In regards to Gines’s criticism of the chapter in Contract and Domination, Mills writes that she has misread the intention of theorizing behind the “racia-sexual contract,” which explains the operation of the “racial [white supremacist] patriarchy,” but “was not supposed to be the final word” or speak to all “dimensions of domination” (37, 38). Furthermore, regarding Mills’ claim that “race generally trumps gender—meaning white men and women unite to oppress “nonwhite men and women as a group”—does not ignore or minimize the gender domination between nonwhite men and women (39). He provides textual evidence from the chapter to back up his assertion (39–40). His response to Sullivan’s article is interesting in that he offers a detailed defense of his emphasis on race over other variables, and how it is empirically indefensible to employ the “co-constitution” approach of intersectionality (44). For example, Nazi Germany, the South African apartheid regime, and the “Old” Southern United States were societies based on white racial domination of all non-white peoples, regardless of class status, gender, etc. As a methodology, Mills contends intersectionality does not allow us to see the primary role race had in the constitution of the three societies mentioned above. Mills concludes that “we need to recognize the differential significance of race in modernity, because it shapes both social structure and the possibilities for social change” (47). This does not mean we ignore other variables that shape identity and lived experience, but when it comes to the role of race, “asymmetry rules” the day (47).
Brooks Kirchgassner is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at UConn. He received his M.A. in Political Science from San Francisco State University and B.A. in Politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His current research interests are primarily in the fields of political theory and comparative politics, especially race, the politics of solidarity, political culture, and labor unions in the U.S. and Latin America.