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What Trevor Noah missed when he accused US police of breaking ‘social contract’

I can’t help but wonder if ‘The Daily Show’ host has read ‘The Racial Contract’ by Charles Mills. It helped me understand structural racism

Laura Basu
28 October 2021, 1.47pm
Trevor Noah Noah said the state had broken a social contract with Black Americans
Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

After George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis in May last year, comedian and political commentator Trevor Noah did a segment on ‘The Daily Show’, an American satirical news programme, on the protests that followed and the whining about looting that accompanied them. He argued that law-breaking was to be expected. The police, Noah said, had broken their social contract with Black Americans with their brutality. I remember watching that item and wondering if Noah had read Charles Mills’ 1997 book, ‘The Racial Contract’, and if not, whether he might feel differently if he had.

Mills was a Jamaican philosopher who died in September. Discovering his work was one of the ‘a-ha!’ moments of my PhD research over a decade ago. More recently I interviewed him for an episode of openDemocracy’s ‘ourVoices’ podcast after Floyd’s murder. The topic was: ‘Is Capitalism Racist?’ While I was making the podcast I realised that I wasn’t the only one who had rediscovered Mills. Reading groups were springing up to discuss his ideas. Mills’ arguments were helping people make sense of the monolithic state violence they had witnessed and the pain, fury, love and hope they were experiencing on the streets. When I was asked to write something for this year’s Black History Month, I knew it was going to be about Mills and the racial contract.

The book begins with a Black American folk saying: “When white people say ‘Justice’, they mean ‘Just us’”. ‘The Racial Contract’ is a critique of social contract theory espoused by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Social contract theory argues that society is based on a tacit contract whereby citizens give up some of their freedoms and agree to be governed in exchange for certain rights and protections. It is this social contract that confers legitimacy on the authority of the state.

For Mills, these social contract thinkers conveniently leave something out. This version of the social contract excludes people who have been racialised as not-white and therefore as lesser. It excludes all those who have been colonised, oppressed and exploited on the basis of this racialisation. Not only does the social contract exclude people of colour, it is actually built on the basis of their subjugation. The social contract among whites only exists because of the oppression of non-whites. Western liberal democracies were built on slavery, genocide and occupation, and they continue to exist on the basis of neo-colonialism and racial hierarchies.

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In the latest episode of ourVoices podcast, Charles W. Mills speaks to us about racism, capitalism, and 'the racial contract'.

Mills explains that the racial contract is both an epistemological construct and a historical reality. This means that the writings of our most noble Enlightenment thinkers were riddled with racism (“European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human”) and that the new state formations those thinkers were writing about were built on racism.

Seeing our social structures for what they are – underpinned by a fundamentally racist racial contract rather than by a democratic social contract – changes everything. Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that it’s not, as Noah posited, that the social contract has broken down between the state and Black people. It's that the racial contract is in perfectly good working order. We shouldn’t be surprised by the police killings, the exploitation of much of the world, the invasions and occupations, the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, or the official reports that only serve to gaslight. They are par for the course for the racial contract. This is how our social order is supposed to work.

Maybe he had mellowed with age, but when I spoke to Mills last year he didn’t reject liberal democracy wholesale (and he said he got a lot of flak from his colleagues for refusing to do so). He thought it was possible to de-racify the racial contract, to turn it into an actual social contract. But this, he said, would take a lot of hard work. He identified three principles of corrective justice to overcome the racial contract: end second-class civic status, end racial exploitation and end interracial disrespect.

Our social structures are underpinned by a fundamentally racist racial contract

Ending second-class civic status would cover the demands to defund the police and abolish prisons. Resources would be directed to health, housing, and education instead.

Ending racial exploitation would mean reversing the ongoing economic effects of colonialism and slavery, including through reparations.

Ending interracial disrespect would include tearing down monuments to slavers and colonists, stopping blackface and racial stereotyping, as well as the exclusion of people of colour from public discourse.

I remember reflecting that in the Netherlands, where I live, the anti-racist movement gets a lot of flak for channelling much of its energy into cancelling Black Pete, a racist blackface character that is central to the country’s most important festival. The criticism is that this focuses too much on the symbolic. The campaign, its critics say, doesn’t address the real structural violence that people of colour face, like discrimination in the labour market or police brutality. Mills made me realise that the level of respect really matters; disrespect can be a real form of oppression and it is bound up with other forms of violence. The extreme violence directed at the Kick Out Black Pete protesters is a case in point. Organiser Jerry Afriyie has been arrested simply for wearing a T-shirt that says “Black Pete is racism”. In 2019, the protest organisers were attacked by real-life arsonists.

I don’t know if Mills was right and that our liberal democracies can be reconstituted to not be fundamentally racist. I suspect we need a brand new form of social organisation. But I agree with him on the need to be optimistic about the potential for solidarity amidst all the violence and trauma. Despite growing authoritarianism and fascism, Mills saw the beginnings of a new interracial coalition between the racial, global and climate justice movements. He thought that this contained the nucleus of immense transformational power. Let’s hope he was right.

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