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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


The Racial Contract
Charles Mills

(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997)
171pp. Index. Hb.: 14.95; ISBN 0-8014-3454-8.



Professor Charles Mills in a compact yet revealing book attempts, and at times brilliantly succeeds, to redefine our traditional notion of contract theory. It is his basic premise that social contract theory is too narrowly defined and interpreted by both theorists and philosophers. It is his charge that these people, mostly white males, miss the exploitative nature of contract theory and as such allows one to justify or more importantly ignore what some scholars call the power of "White Privilege." That is, the unspoken but very real attitude that gives, particularly white males, special power relations that help maintain the dominance of White European society over non-white groups. Early in his book Professor Mills states, "This book is an attempt to redirect your vision to make you see what, in essence has been there all along." p.2 (White Privilege) Gratefully a full reading of The Racial Contract fulfils this ambitious undertaking.

His book begins with a concise well-documented overview of how contract theory has failed to include the notion of race and how contract theory is used to rationalize the unequal distribution of social, political and economic power in the hands of a white, male dominated, community. He further explains how traditional contract theory is interpreted in such a narrow fashion that it fails to get at a key issue underlying the problem of conflict and exploitation: Race. He argues that contract theory is open only to a non-racial moral interpretation. He states," Whites take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as "political," as a form of domination." p.1 (White Privilege) Dr. Mills in effect redefines modern global society as stemming from what he calls a "Racial Contract." That is an exploitative moral, political, social and economic system doomed to maintain the dominance of white society. In essence, it is the Racial Contract that underlies much of today's ethnic conflict. He argues that over the past centuries white male dominance has been able to use social contract theory as the rational to control the world at large. He strongly states that for the most part theorists, mostly white, interpret world domination not as a by-product of racial and ethnic manipulation but as a natural progression of moral and natural law coming out of social contract theory. Mills argues that because "contractarians" p.5 fail to address race as a legitimate variable in social contract theory, that both normative and empirical thinkers could be wrong.

His most compelling argument is the demand that one must link race to the role it has played in determining relationships and benefits one acquires in any society. In effect, his thesis cites race as a major variable in maintaining the secondary status of racial groups. He further stipulates that people of color must be aware of this basic tenet, racial subordination, if they are to change their limited and secondary status in our present world. Furthermore, he feels that white society must also become aware that "white privilege" is an unspoken benefit often not understood by those who benefit most, the White community, and until this process begins conflict between groups will not and in fact cannot be controlled. In essence, it is this exploitative nature of the Racial Contract that underlies much of today's ethnic conflicts. Mills clearly argues that the nature of the Racial Contract is so sublime that our present theorists and philosophers fail to take it into account when examining the nature of the various conflicts underlying the worlds political, social and economic unrest.


John Valadez, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater



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