The Social Contract and Racial Dominance in America
Mills’ essay “Race and the Social Contract Tradition” (2000) makes a
compelling argument about the nature of social power dynamic in America,
evaluating issues related to race, racial identity and the defacto
acceptance of a social contract which uses these traits to define a clear
hierarchy. The social contract is elaborated in the Mills text in order to
examine the hegemonic impulses which it supports. In particular, this
essay will evaluate Mills’ conception of the dominance contract as
reflecting the ethical and ideological distortions used to reinforce
continuing racial inequality in the economic, political and social context.
According to Mills, in spite of the many legal and ideological changes
which have occurred across the last century, racial qualifiers remain a
powerful force with respect to opportunity and social order. The Caucasian
population of the United States most assuredly enjoys a singular reign at
the top of a racially loaded hierarchy which calls into question the logic
of the ‘social contract.’ To the point, Mills raises the threshold
question of whether the denials, fallacies, and unconscious perceptions of
racial hierarchies are attributable to the inherent problems with the
mechanics of social contracts or primarily consequences of the particular
beliefs and social history of American society. To an extent, he proceeds
to make the argument that some intercession of both is responsible for the
inequality in our society. Mills contends that “insofar as the contract
classically emphasises the centrality of individual will and consent, it
voluntarises and represents as the result of free and universal consensual
agreement relations and structures of domination about which most people
have no real choice, and which actually oppress the majority of the
population.” (Mills, 441) This is to suggest that the assumption of a
social contract is a tool of authority in and of itself which dictates an
involuntary consent of all individuals to a common moral disposition. The
result is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the supposed ethical
responsibility of all to a social contract is assumed without consideration
of the contract’s possible inherent flaws. In the case of the social
contract which might be said to exist in the United States, the inherent
racialist biases in our history combine with the shortcomings of the social
contract in order not only to extend a set of expectations to all citizens
but to attach these falsely to moral turpitude. In the case of the case of
the dominance contract, this false moral turpitude is tantamount to the
ethical defense of racial inequality.
Mills also suggests that racial inequalities in contemporary American
society are substantially less resolved than typically represented. Mills
addresses the issue of defining the nature of the debt owed by the white
majority to racial groups which they had subjugated for centuries. Mills
outlines the contextual understanding of contractual relationships by
differentiating literal contracts from the hypothetical, and descriptive
contracts from defacto contracts. In that regard, much of Mills’ argument
is that contemporary American society is substantially defined by a defacto
contract in the form of the accepted historical narrative of the evolution
of Western society
According to the author, the shared history of human societies has
produced a tacit contract endorses the responsibility of all individuals to
their respective societies. In the case of Western European societies in
general and the United States in particular, the social contract emergent
in our national history functions as a form of mutual agreement that would
ignore many inconvenient historical truths, such as the manner and degree
to which the white races have relied on their exploitation of non-whites
(and to which white males have relied on exploiting females, and the rich
on exploiting the poor throughout an even longer history). Importantly,
Mills remarks that the assumption of this contract seems to have emerged
almost spontaneously as a device through which to construct an inherency to
such inequalities. Mills tells that “if collectivity is understood as
embodying agreement, it does not necessarily follow that any such agreement
between parties ever actually took place in historical time. . . A
contraction political theory, therefore, can be entirely hypothetical,
analyzing state and society as if agreement must always be presumed.”
(Mills, 444) Naturally, this creates quite a bit of latitude for those who
have simultaneously reported to the existence of such a contract and who
have further appointed themselves as distinctly qualified to enforce such a
This allows for what Mills refers to as a naturalization of the
social contract, in which the hegemonic claim and enforcement of such a
contract allows it to manifest as something real. Where it would be
hypothetical in its originally incarnation, its execution as a mode to the
extension of social control, political exclusivity and economic imbalance
would make it a very real force. Such is to say that the theoretical
construct of the social contract is more accurately understood in the
actual formulation of a dominance contract. Accordingly, the
characterization of racial exploitation through dominance and repression
presented by Mills suggests that the contemporary white majority still
dominates minority races unjustly by virtue of the identical methods used
historically by the upper classes to dominate the lower classes, and
prehistorically by males to dominate females. By rendering political and
economic institutions in which those of the ruling demographic are able to
formalize and legitimize otherwise theoretical inequalities, Mills denotes
that white men have succeeded in establishing a hierarchical order which
functions across characteristics of gender, wealth, and race.
Race is an issue which has especially garnered intense focus both by
those that would defend the legitimacy of the dominance contract and by
those that have sought to reaffirm the validity of the social contract by
removing it from the machinations of white supremacy. Quite to the point,
it is not that social contract in and of itself which comprises the
greatest problem for human civility. Instead, it is a failure to
critically acknowledge that the social contract is vulnerable to distortion
when brandished by an unequal force. This points to the underlying concern
that governments have historically tended toward this inequality by
allowing for or benefiting from notable racial disparities.
This is something which Mills acknowledges in pointing to ways of
refining the social contract theory. He makes the case that an
understanding of the social contract with a concession to the realities of
racial disparity is necessary if it this is to be understood as an
instrument for social order rather than the retention of classicist
dominance. So remarks Mills, describing “what has come to be called
‘critical race theory’ began in legal theory, as a response to racial
minorities’ dissatisfaction with the critical legal studies movement. So
this was, so to speak, a critique of the crits, the claim that their
analysis of the deficiencies and silences of mainstream legal theory did
not pay sufficient attention to race.” (Mills, 447) This is an idea which
helps to underscore a view of the social contract as having been stewarded
to reflect society’s racism and not necessarily the other way around. In
this regard, the social contract is not a threat to racial equality but
becomes a channel by which inequality can be both manifested and
As Mills finds, there is nothing inherently immoral, unjust, or
problematic, in principle, with the social contract model. Rather, the
justness or unjustness and the social utility of social contracts lies in
the factual validity and ethical fairness of their underlying assumptions
and presumptions. Ultimately, Mills will actually come to find the social
contract a useful instrument for assuring that the moral constants which
help to protect a society from its own internal destruction are defined and
accepted. With respect to the definition of the law, it is expected that
our collective submission to this force is demonstrative of the social
contract in full and defensible respect. In its absence, a society could
descend into chaos. Ultimately, this denotes that the principal
requirement to resolve the problems introduced by social contracts,
therefore, is not to abolish them altogether but to examine the impulses
that have caused them to misrepresent ethical determinations.
Naturally, this is more easily said than done, but it is an imperative
underscored by Mills’ argument, which emphasizes the need to deconstruct
the racialist falsehoods that are more a function of political imperative
than biology. Mills indicates that “if there is a key point, a common
theoretical denominator, it is the simultaneous recognition of the
centrality of race and the unreality of race, its socio-political rather
than biological character. The cliche? that has come to express this
insight is that race is not natural but ‘constructed’. So race is made,
unmade, and remade; race is a product of human activity, both personal and
institutional, rather than DNA.” (Mills, 448) This means that in order to
free the social contract from the dominance framework, we must collectively
unlearn that which we have come to accept about race and society.
Mills details the manner in which the contemporary historical
narrative of the United States (and of the evolution of Western
civilization, more generally) are based on various historical fictions and
the denial of extensive moral transgressions. Namely, the institutions of
slavery and Jim Crow that were used to constrain the growth and advancement
of African Americans are today disregarded as being directly relevant to
the fortunes and opportunities of blacks in America. This is both
unrealistic and unethical, with the denial of its lasting impact casting
American racism in an historical light rather than one which is still
present and problematic. It is thus that the social contract today serves
the interests of dominance even as it feigns to have disavowed these
aspects of itself.
A true resolution to the failures of the social contract may only
really occur when the discourse on America’s racialist past and the lasting
effects of this on the current fortunes of African Americans is resolved.
In that regard, Mills regards it as largely a fiction that racial
discrimination ended in any meaningful way after the Emancipation
Proclamation; rather, racial prejudice and systematic subjugation continued
overtly well into the 20th century, continuing still today albeit primarily
covertly and unconsciously. Mills characterizes American blacks as having
been granted the permanent status of “outsiders” in American society from
the standpoint of equal rights and their second-class citizenship. For that
matter, Mills also considers the prevailing social contracts to relegate
women to second-class citizenship through the same process. Essentially,
Mills characterizes the position of racial minorities as enjoying a lesser
type of “equality” than white males that makes them “sub-persons” in
Ultimately, this speaks to the core racial failures in American
society that have distorted the social contract. If the veracity of the
social contract is to be defended, then it must be removed from a context
in which its primary purpose has become the extension of racial dominance
and a resultant disorder of society.
Mills, C.W. (2000). Race and the Social Contract Tradition. Social
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