Charles Wade Mills (1951-2021)

Mills standing in front of a banner for the University of Washington's Simpson Center for the Humanities
Charles W. Mills before lecture on Liberalism and Racial Justice, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, May 24, 2018
Courtesy Simpson Center for the Humanities under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

Charles Wade Mills was a notable Caribbean-American political philosopher and distinguished professor. He was born in London on January 3, 1951 to Jamaican parents, Winnifred and Gladstone Mills, who were both pursuing their graduate degrees in the city. The couple returned to Kingston shortly after his birth. He spent his childhood growing up in Jamaica and reading books. In 1971, Mills received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of the West Indies and taught physics at the University of Technology, Jamaica and, later, at Campion College in Jamaica. He then received his master’s and doctorate degrees in philosophy at the University of Toronto in 1976 and 1985 respectively.

In 1987, Mills began his academic career as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. From 1990 to 2007, he held a position at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) and was recognized as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. While there, Mills reshaped the canon of political philosophy when he published his seminal work, The Racial Contract, in 1997. In it, Mills argued that the political concept of a social contract was actually a racial contract. The social contract theory had emerged during the Enlightenment period to explain how people consented to surrendering some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of other rights. This, as Mills contended, was due to the assumption of white dominance and was established at a time when Europeans dominated the enslavement of black people. The book won worldwide acclaim and received the Myers Outstanding Book Award for the study of bigotry and human rights in America.

Mills lecturing in front of a crowd
Charles W. Mills lecturing on Liberalism and Racial Justice, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, May 24, 2018 – Courtesy Simpson Center for the Humanities under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

Throughout his extensive career, Mills published over 100 journal articles, chapters, and commentaries along with six books. These publications include Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (1998), which was a finalist for the award of most important North American work in social philosophy for that year; From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003); Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality (2010); Contract and Domination (2013) which was co-authored by Carole Pateman; and Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (2017).

In 2007, Mills accepted a professorship at Northwestern University and served as the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy until 2016. He also received recognition in the field of philosophy by serving as president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In this role, peers chose him to give the APA’s John Dewey Lectureship; he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and was chosen to give the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan.

In 2016, Mills left Northwestern and became the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York in the Graduate Center. In 2021, he received the Political Science Association’s Benjamin E. Lippincott Award for The Racial Contract.

However, in May of 2021, Charles Wade Mills was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and died shortly after on September 21, 2021 at the age of 70.