Racial Emancipation by Charles W. Mills

Racial Emancipation


Charles W. Mills

Presented in the session “Emancipatory Knowledge,”

Emancipation Conference, Technical University Berlin, May 26, 2018

For a European audience in general, and perhaps for a German audience in particular, my title may seem strange. What does “race” have to do with emancipation, or knowledge, or indeed anything? Isn’t “race” a discredited category, like “phlogiston” in being obsolete, a result of our scientific ignorance at the time (if you remember your high school history of chemistry class, and the pioneering work of Antoine Lavoisier), but unlike “phlogiston” in being actively harmful, deeply tied up historically with systems of oppression, as in the Third Reich? In the brief time available to me, I will try nonetheless to defuse this skepticism and make a case for (i) the inadequacy of traditional European left/”critical”/”radical” narratives of emancipation (ii) the need for the revival of “race” as a category, albeit in a different incarnation, and (iii) the crucial link between “race” (suitably rethought) and an emancipatory societal knowledge, including an epistemic meta-perspective on pernicious societal ignorance, and the necessary role of “race” (with only superficial paradox) for both racial emancipation and emancipation from race.


Let us begin with the traditional Euro-left story. Members of the audience familiar with the Marxist tradition will be well acquainted with its overarching framework of “class society,” its analysis of capitalism as the new class society of modernity, its exploration (more saliently in the early Marx) of “alienation” as a central negative feature of class society, and its detailed exposé of the workings of a “bourgeois” state and economy whose exploitative nature is concealed by “ideology,” above all in the illusory “freedom” and “equality” promised by liberalism and the bourgeois revolutions (thereby distinguishing capitalism from pre-modern class societies, which made no such pledge).

The classic early text diagnosing the inadequacy of a normative juridico-political equality that ignores material/economic inequalities is, of course, “On the Jewish Question,” Marx’s 1843 critique of fellow-Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer.[i] By contrast with France, the Germany of the time has not had its liberalizing bourgeois revolution. Bauer’s solution to the problem of continuing anti-Semitism is thus to secularize the state (i.e., to have no state-backed religion) and to get rid of religion altogether. Instead of Christians and Jews living together in a multi-religious society, we would then have non-believers living together in a non-religious society. In that way we would attain “civil” “political” emancipation and the equality of the former Christian and Jewish populations.

Marx’s reply is that such a diagnosis is superficial. The state can be secularized—“political” emancipation for Bauer—without its affecting the degree of religiosity in the society. “Political” emancipation is not sufficient for full emancipation; what we need is human emancipation. Bauer’s analysis is flawed because it is seeking an explanation at the wrong societal level. His vision is limited by his failure to understand that religion is merely an effect of an underlying cause; he is treating symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease. Abolishing religion, secularizing the state, will not solve this problem because people will still have the need for religion. Religion and religious issues are manifestations of far deeper problems. “[P]olitical emancipation from religion leaves religion intact even though it is no longer a privileged religion.” Indeed, this is illustrated by the fact that in the far more thoroughly liberalized and bourgeois United States of the time, which has no state religion, religion continues to flourish.

So the real issue is the “dualism,” the “double life,” between human existence in the political state (the “heavenly” level where we relate to our fellow citizens as “communal beings”) and the material level of civil society (the “earth” of egoistic conflict and self-seeking in the market and the economy). The illusory harmony of the former is undermined by the “war of all against all” of the latter (but a “war” in society, note, not the Hobbesian pre-social state of nature). It is here that we must direct our theoretical attention, and it is here that the problem needs to be solved. The “Jewish question” is just a specific manifestation of this far more general issue. Bauer’s prescribed liberal secularization, even if it were thoroughly carried out, would still leave us alienated citizens of a bourgeois state. Only through a more radical kind of revolution can this dichotomy be overcome and genuine “human” emancipation be achieved.

At this stage of his intellectual development, Marx is not yet using the language of revolutionary socialism or identifying this “human” revolution as a socialist revolution. But in the full-fledged version of what comes to be known as “historical materialism,” the idea is that the anti-capitalist revolution will eventually bring about a genuine community where the polity—no longer a “bourgeois” state—will represent our common human interests rather than dominant class interests.

Needless to say, the sad 20th century history of failed Stalinist regimes has somewhat dampened such revolutionary optimism. But modified versions of this narrative—now placing their hopes perhaps in a radicalized and revitalized social democracy—remain influential in left circles. I certainly do not want to deny the continuing relevance of the left vision, especially at a time when even mainstream liberalism is coming under attack both in Europe and the United States, and right-wing ethnonationalism or even outright neo-Nazism are frighteningly resurgent. (Who would have thought that, three-quarters of a century after World War II, we would be hearing “Blood and soil!” being chanted on U.S. terrain?) But I want to suggest that to understand the enduring resilience of such movements, and their ongoing dynamic, we need to understand race, and the ways in which the original left narrative of emancipation was always flawed in its marginalization of the distinctive significance of race.


So let me turn now to what has recently come to be called “critical philosophy of race,” under the broader category of “critical race theory.”[ii]As the adjective signifies for both genus and species, this body of work is foundationally opposed to traditional racist theory, not at all a modern reboot of it. The coinage is recent, but as is often the case in such matters, the phenomenon itself long predates its baptism, with examples to be found, avant la lettre, in the anti-racist intellectual traditions of many communities, especially those—unsurprisingly—themselves differentially subjected to racial discrimination and persecution. So though it is akin in spirit to the “Critical Theory” that derives from Marx, and, before that, Kant, its origins are more diverse, and in some cases actually older. (The periodization of racism in the West is controversial, with some theorists locating its origins in early modernity while others would go all the way back to the ancient world.[iii])

Indeed, one of the clearest manifestations of the inadequacy of the Euro-narrative of emancipation, whether in its mainstream liberal or its alternative “radical” versions, is that many theorists and philosophers of the supposedly “critical” European Enlightenment emancipatory tradition were themselves racists, and thus simultaneously contributors to the racist tradition that critical theorists and philosophers of race have had to emancipate themselves from! Marx and Engels themselves were not above making occasional derogatory remarks about “niggers,” albeit in an offhand, non-theorized way, while as an emergent body of recent scholarship has documented (bringing back to scholarly awareness a fact apparently well-known in Germany up to World War II), Immanuel Kant was not merely a racist but a founder of modern “scientific” (biological) racism.[iv]

In classic biological and theological racist theory, “race” signified sub-sections of the human race arranged in hierarchies of (variously) cognitive ability, characterological disposition, aesthetic worth, and spiritual propensity. Nazism, the death camps, and the Jewish and Romani genocides seemingly discredit biological racism altogether. But many experts in the field have argued that it is replaced in the postwar period by what has come to be called “cultural” racism. Less obviously tied to the body, this variety is convergent in certain respects with an exclusionary ethnocentrism that rules out the possibility of civic integration of racial “Others,” even while denying that any claims are being made about their inferiority. Colonial white racism and the modern racial versions of anti-Semitism would be obvious examples of the first kind, contemporary Islamophobia of the second kind.

The key point, however, is that “race” in critical race theory signifies noneof these variants; it is a “successor concept” of race. In philosophy in particular a wide range of competing candidates has been put forward in what is termed the “metaphysics” of race: racial eliminativism (races exist in no sense); racial realism (biological races do exist after all, as confirmed by population genetics, but not in any hierarchy); racial constructivism (races do not exist biologically, but they do exist as social constructs, usually in a social hierarchy); racial reconstructivism (races exist neither biologically nor socially, but races* [a reconstructed concept] do); unified racial social-naturalism (races exist in a unified ontological way both as biological entities and social constructs); and bifurcated racial social-naturalism (races exist in a possibly divergent ontological way as “minimal” biological entities and possibly separate social entities).[v]

Now at this stage a natural response would be that I have undermined my own argument by the citation of such a wide range of alternatives. If “race” is given such radically different interpretations, from non-existence to multiple alternative forms of existence, why not, as originally indicated, dispense with it altogether? But the divergence among critical philosophers of race on the precise ontology of race masks a high degree of convergence on the facts that (a) hierarchical biological, theological, and cultural race does not exist (b) racism existed historically and continues to exist currently, directed against groups thought to be races (c) understanding the past and current workings of racism not merely at the individual but at the societal level, including its ongoing legacy and its social-structural manifestations, requires a concept that tracks “race,” and (d) making normative judgments about racial social justice—or, more simply, “racial justice”—and prescribing appropriate corrective and pre-emptive remedies and public policy measures, likewise requires a concept that tracks “race.” Even eliminativists, who might be thought of as holding the metaphysical position most recalcitrant to such an agenda, will not generally deny that racialized social groups exist, which is all critical race theorists need to make their case.

For all these reasons, then, I would claim that a rehabilitated concept of race is necessary for any thoroughgoing emancipatory project. We need to investigate critically and theoretically both how race affects social structure and, reflexively, the uncritical (even when self-conceivedly critical) descriptive and normative theorizing about that social structure.


Let us return now to “On the Jewish Question” and Marx’s differentiation between “political” and “human” emancipation. I suggest that—whether here in nascent form, or later in more elaborated form—we have a narrative fundamentally flawed by white male privilege even in its praiseworthy political insights. The reduction of anti-Semitism to religious prejudice born out of alienated class society; the anti-Semitism many commentators have argued Marx himself displays in the text; the lack of appreciation of the profound embeddedness of exclusionary ethnoreligious identity in Western society, long predating modernity;[vi] the failure in his contrasting discussion of the United States even to mention that—as a slave society—it could hardly be deemed to qualify as a completely “modern” liberal bourgeois state—all testify to an uncritical endorsement of a Euro-narrative which, in its very marginalization of race, itself reveals the deep shaping role of race on the thought of Marx and his contemporaries, whether allies or adversaries. In taking for granted the European domination of the world (albeit not as complete as it would later become); in not recognizing the need to theorize white supremacy as an emergent social structure of modernity, and “race” as an index of one’s location, whether privileged or subordinated, in that structure; in limiting ascriptive hierarchy to intra-white class status, Marx reveals a “racial” ignorance that will necessarily obstruct any complete transracial emancipation.

As earlier mentioned, scholars disagree on the periodization of Western racism, whether as limited to modernity or beginning in classical antiquity. If the long, “extended” periodization is correct, as more and more classicists and medievalists are arguing, it would mean, as Michaerl Hanchard contends in his forthcoming The Spectre of Race, that ethnoracial exclusion, far from being a novel political development, is foundational to Western democracy from its Athenian origins.[vii] But even if the “short” periodization is ultimately vindicated, it would, or should, still be undeniable that modern Western and Western-implanted polities—insofar as they are constituted or reconstituted at the same time, and in reciprocal causal relation with, European expansionism and conquest—are created as racial polities, in which the moral, juridical, and civic status of whites and people of color is generally clearly differentiated. Marxism seeks to expose the Kantian Rechtsstaat as the bourgeois state—easy enough, considering Kant’s own property restrictions on “active” citizenship—and, correspondingly, liberalism as bourgeois ideology. But where is there any comparable theorization of the Rechtsstaat as the Rassenstaat, and of liberalism as racial ideology? Yet in Hobbes (not a liberal himself, of course, but in his radical individualism a crucial precursor), in Locke, in Hume, in Kant, in de Tocqueville, in Mill, in Hegel, we find—across their divergent versions—a convergence in agreement on the subordinate standing of (most) nonwhites. As George Mosse pointed out decades ago in his Toward the Final Solution (a book unfortunately still largely unread by contemporary political theorists and political philosophers), racism was the most important ideology of modernity, influencing the development of all other ideologies.[viii] And the modern state in general—not just the Nazi state, or the South African apartheid state—has likewise been a racial state.[ix]

A genuinely inclusive transracial narrative of “emancipation,” then, will need to recognize, acknowledge, and theorize how taking the colonial, imperial, and slave history into account radically rewrites the orthodox Euro-story. Periodizing “human” emancipation (putatively brought about by the socialist revolution over capital) as the higher stage required after mere “political” emancipation (the bourgeois revolutions ending formal class hierarchy) excludes from normative consideration the nonwhite population in modernity, whose equal “humanity” has been denied by the advent of that very modernity. In other words, the white left narrative presupposes an equal recognized humanity, an equal personhood, which is in actuality barred to nonwhites. Intra-white class distinctions are not the same as intra-human racial distinctions. The latter are, in a sense, more fundamental, insofar as they raise questions about one’s very humanity. In the classic words of Jean-Paul Sartre, in his famous preface to Frantz Fanon’s (1961) The Wretched of the Earth: “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million [persons], and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it.”[x]

What is required, then, is what could be thought of as an “ontological” emancipation, an “ontological” revolution, to overturn this planetary subordination—signified by “race”—which is analytically, conceptually distinct from Marx’s “political” emancipation/bourgeois revolution and “human” emancipation/socialist revolution, though in empirical reality it may, of course, be causally imbricated with them. Just as the bourgeois ideology Marx recognized and critiqued could be thought of as generated by social-structural causes (particular inferential patterns, belief-systems, conceptual framings: “forms of social consciousness”), so the racial ideology far less recognized and critiqued on the left could be thought of as generated by the social structure of the unacknowledged system of white supremacy. Indeed, the very fact that this system is largely unnamed in white Critical Theory constitutes the most straightforward evidence for its cognitive power over those privileged by it. The achievement of emancipatory knowledge about this variety of domination requires lenses developed through the experience of its victims, the subjects of racial oppression. And for that knowledge we need to turn to the nonwhite cognizers who, in the influential terminology of Miranda Fricker, have historically been subject to both “testimonial” and “hermeneutical” epistemic injustice in their attempts to challenge mainstream and radical white orthodoxies.[xi]

I hope you can appreciate now why using “race” to overcome “race” is no more inherently contradictory than the original Marxist claim that class organization and the recognition of class domination was necessary to overcome class society and ultimately bring about a classless order. Once we stop seeing race (in the relevant sense) as biology, and start seeing race as social structure—unfair white privilege and unfair nonwhite disadvantage, established over hundreds of years—we should also recognize that the overcoming of race cannot be achieved through the ignoring of race, any more than denying that classes exist in modern capitalist society actually makes these societies classless. White racial privilege goes in tandem with white racial ignorance, a refusal to face the racialized reality painstakingly mapped over centuries of subordination by the alternative oppositional tradition of what has come to be called “Afro-modern political thought.”[xii] Just as in classic Marxist revolutionary theory, the class-privileged need to self-consciously interrogate their class identity, and strive for personal transformation to help bring about a more egalitarian social order, so “white” people need to admit and interrogate their “whiteness,” and instrumentalize it to the end of overcoming white racial domination.[xiii] Racial emancipation would then have been achieved at both the societal and individual levels: the end of “race” as illicit differential social-structural advantage and handicap and the end of “race” as illicit differential ontological positioning in the ranks of humanity.  


[i] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[ii] For critical race theory in law, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: The New Press, 1995), and for philosophy, see Charles W. Mills, “Critical Philosophy of Race,” in Herman Cappelen, Tamar Szabó Gendler, and John Hawthorne, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[iii] Contrast, for example, Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996) (race as modern) with Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) (race as ancient).

[iv] For a discussion and detailed bibliography, see Charles W. Mills, “Kant’s Untermenschen,” in Andrew Valls, ed., Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005) and “Kant and Race, Redux,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, “Philosophy and Race,” 35, nos. 1-2 (2014): 125-57.

[v] See the forthcoming Four Views on Race (Oxford University Press), with separately authored chapters by Joshua Glasgow, Sally Haslanger, Chike Jeffers, and Quayshawn Spencer, in which each contributor both lays out his/her position (in one chapter) and replies to the other three (in another chapter).

[vi] See, for example, David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

[vii] Michael G. Hanchard, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[viii] George Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism ([1978] New York: Howard Fertig, 1997).

[ix] David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).

[x] Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington ([1961] New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), p. 7.

[xi] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[xii] Charles W. Mills, “White Ignorance” and “Global White Ignorance” (both available online); Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[xiii] Linda Martín Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015).

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