It is my pleasure to share this post written by Featured Philosopher Charles Mills.  Professor Mills is the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, and is well know for his influential and insightful work in oppositional political theory.  His post today is on Black Radical Liberalism.


BLACK RADICAL LIBERALISM (and why it isn’t an oxymoron)

“Black radical liberalism” is my attempt to reconstruct from different and usually counterposed bodies of political thought what I see as the most promising candidate for an emancipatory African American political theory. So I am less concerned with the question of whether any African American political theorists actually self-consciously identified what they were doing under this designation than with the question of whether it stands up to criticism as a plausible way forward.

In taxonomies of African American/black political thought, the standard contrast would be:


I am arguing for a synthesizing, reconstructed black liberalism which draws upon the most valuable insights of the black nationalist and black Marxist traditions, and incorporates them into a dramatically transformed liberalism. So the taxonomies would now be drawn differently:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.04.04 AM

How does black radical liberalism differ from black mainstream liberalism? By definition they are both “liberal” in endorsing liberalism as a political philosophy, but black radical liberalism seeks to transform liberalism to make it responsive to the alternative realities of the black diasporic experience in modernity, and the correspondingly necessary reordering of liberal normative priorities.

Black radical liberalism both (i) recognizes white supremacy as central to the making of the United States and (more sweepingly) the modern world, and (ii) seeks the rethinking of the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism in the light of that recognition.

Black mainstream liberalism either (i) refuses to recognize white supremacy (for example, by endorsing the “anomaly” view of U.S. racism [see Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in US History]) or, (ii) even if it does give lip service to its reality, assumes nonetheless that the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism can be adopted with little change to the task of getting rid of it.

OBJECTIONS: (1) But how can Marxist and liberal insights be reconciled? Aren’t they necessarily opposed?

Liberalism comes in different varieties, and black radical liberalism would obviously be a left-wing variety. Liberalism is opposed to state-commandist socialism, but state-commandist socialism has proved itself to be a historical failure, both economically and morally. Liberalism is not in principle opposed to social democracy or market socialism.

(2) But how can black nationalist insights be reconciled either with Marxism or liberalism?

Black nationalism likewise comes in different varieties. The key insight of the tradition, in my opinion, is the recognition of the reality and centrality of an ontology of race, and how it shapes people and their psychology, which can be accommodated in a modified Marxism and liberalism. (Obviously this means rejecting essentialist versions of black nationalism, whether onto-theological or culturalist. A “black Marxist”/”left nationalist” tradition has long existed that addresses these issues: see, e.g., Lucius Outlaw, Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black Folks.)

(3) But how can even a “black radical liberalism” (assuming it doesn’t fly apart from centrifugal forces) deal with the problems identified by Derrick Bell‘s “racial realism,” or more recent “Afro-pessimism”?

There are no guarantees, but then no other competing ideology can offer them either. Insofar as black radical liberalism is attentive to trends within capitalism (e.g., the forthcoming consolidation and exacerbation of plutocracy in the Western world predicted by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century), it would hope that an increasing number of the white poor/white working class may begin to wake up to the reality that the prospects for their children and grandchildren under plutocratic capitalism—albeit white-supremacist plutocratic capitalism—are not that great either. As a materialist political philosophy, black radical liberalism does not rest its hopes for social transformation on moral suasion alone, but on the mobilization of group interests. The strategy would be to combine the racial justice political project with a larger social justice political project, highlighting the startling fact that the U.S. has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of all the Western democracies.

So that (very sketchily) would be the real-world agenda. Let us now look at the (academic world) implications for Rawlsian liberalism.



Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.10.39 AM


In A Theory of Justice Rawls famously focuses on “ideal theory,” the normative theory of a perfectly just society, one of “strict compliance” with its principles of justice. Ideal theory, however, was supposed to be the necessary preliminary to properly doing non-ideal theory, including “compensatory justice.” But 40+ years later, the transition to theorizing “compensatory justice” has still not been made, and contemporary Rawlsian discussions of non-ideal theory are dealing with other senses of the term.

Obviously, for a population historically subordinated in modernity through slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow, non-ideal theory is the imperative. Afro-modern (as it is now called) political philosophy is centrally shaped by the experience of oppression, domination, exploitation, etc. So black radical liberalism is going to be a variety of non-ideal-theory liberalism, liberalism dealing with the overcoming of social oppression in a nominally liberal society.



A related distinction is the difference between well-ordered (perfectly just) and (what I am going to call) ill-ordered societies. Rawls suggests we think of societies as “cooperative ventures for mutual advantage.” But a white supremacist state is not a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. To assume the cooperative-venture characterization would be to rule racist societies out of normative consideration from the start. So black radical liberalism rejects such a stipulation. Instead, it works with a conception of society broad enough to include ill-ordered societies. Ill-ordered societies are coercive rather than cooperative ventures, characterized by exploitation and asymmetries of respect rather than mutual advantage and reciprocal respect. Ill-ordered societies are, in other words, the world.



In his A Short History of Distributive Justice, Samuel Fleischacker points out that universal distributive justice as a norm in the Western tradition is only slightly more than 200 years old (and of course initially really just extends over the “universe” of white males). At first, not even white women are included (Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract), and certainly not people of color in Western societies (Mills, The Racial Contract). “Corrective justice” as a concept is even more undeveloped and untheorized, especially where groups are concerned.

Basic implication: Western normative theory in general historically for most of 2500 years, and liberalism for most of modernity, has been complicit with rather than condemnatory of, group subordination. The under-theorization in the tradition of corrective justice for subordinated groups, despite the subordination of most of the population nominally in the theory’s ambit, is itself a manifestation of this complicity.

Black radical liberalism reverses these normative priorities, and makes corrective justice its central concern.



Here’s a simple way of formulating Rawls’s two principles of justice (the arrows indicate lexical ordering):

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.04.21 AM

The hegemonic focus on these principles in the world of Anglo-American ideal-theory political philosophy makes it easy to forget how very limited (by Rawls’s own acknowledgment) their scope is. As a graphic representation and reminder of their severely restricted zone of application, let us put them inside identifying and constraining brackets:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.04.30 AM

That is, these are principles of distributive justice for an ideal (I) well-ordered society, that being a society which is (i) a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, in which (ii) the rules are designed for reciprocal benefit, and (iii) people generally follow the rules.

However, we are not, of course, in such a society. We are in a non-ideal (~I) ill-ordered society, which was historically established as (i) a coercive and exploitative venture for differential white advantage, and in which (ii) the rules are generally designed for white benefit.

So how could PDJI be the appropriate principles of justice for such a society? Obviously, they cannot. What we want are principles of corrective justice that will eliminate illicit white advantage. How should this be conceptualized?

In A Theory of Justice, in the attempt to establish the continuity of his approach with the classical, here Aristotelian, tradition, Rawls refers to pleonexia, “gaining some [illicit] advantage for oneself.” I suggest we think of illicit white advantage/white privilege as a form of racial pleonexia, historic and current, which needs to be corrected for. Let us call it ∆, the illicit white differential. So what we are seeking are:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.04.40 AM

Translated into prose: these would be principles of corrective justice, P1, P2, P3, for eliminating illicit white advantage/white privilege/racial pleonexia in whites’ basic liberties, opportunities, and social respect, in a non-ideal, ill-ordered, white supremacist society.

Clarificatory points: (i) respect is included as a basic social good in keeping with both Kantian and Rawlsian norms, and the need for correcting the founding of the polity on the systematic disrespect, dissin’, of people of color (ii) the asterisks indicate uncertainty about the principles’ ordering; from what Rawls says, P1 -> P2, but where would P3 fit? (iii) EO is listed rather than FEO, and the DP is not mentioned, because even for whites neither FEO nor the DP were ever institutionalized, and the principles here are for correcting actual white racial advantage.

Does this settle the matter? Obviously not—it’s only a beginning. But what I at least wanted to establish by putting these two formulas side by side is the crucial conceptual and normative difference between the two projects and the fundamental mistakenness (in my opinion) of trying to derive racial justice from principles designed with a completely different end in mind. Rawls says himself in numerous locations that he is talking about principles of justice for the very limited case of a well-ordered society. He is not talking about racist societies such as our own. What are called for in the case of these societies are principles of transitional justice:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.31.10 AM

So PCJ would be principles of corrective justice for remedying past injustices, and guiding the transition to a more just society. The concerns motivating a black radical liberalism would be addressed rather than evaded.

4 Replies to “Black Radical Liberalism (by Charles Mills)

  1. About Class and the Need for a Narrative
    There is a substantial practical gap in Charles Mills’s reworking of nonideal theory toward an ideology of Black Radical Liberalism. Mills writes:
    “Insofar as black radical liberalism is attentive to trends within capitalism (e.g., the forthcoming consolidation and exacerbation of plutocracy in the Western world predicted by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century), it would hope that an increasing number of the white poor/white working class may begin to wake up to the reality that the prospects for their children and grandchildren under plutocratic capitalism—albeit white-supremacist plutocratic capitalism—are not that great either.”
    This is an old concern, which has a different subject today than when it was first proposed that poor whites in the United States are implicitly given the “racial wages” of their white racial identity, to make up for their economic exploitation––that is, at least they were not black. There was a time when not being black meant not having to compete for the worst jobs, at the lowest pay, that were performed by blacks. However, racial categories and racism no longer have the same economic importance, because poor blacks are no longer a source of cheap labor. (At the same time, racism is now based both on historical racial categories and roams freely as an ‘unbound variable’ so that new groups such as Hispanic/Latinos and Muslims can be ‘racialized’ as not-white.) The labor previously performed by blacks has been left undone with the decay of the public infrastructure, or else it has been outsourced on more reliable terms offered by the poor in other countries, or else it is performed by recent non-European immigrants. As a result, racial categories and racism now have a largely symbolic, or at most signifying, role to support an economic and political hierarchy of class in which poor whites, including those who have been flattered with the label of “middle class” cannot see their common economic and political interests with nonwhites, especially blacks. Thus, it remains the case that poor whites in the United States will resist and avoid becoming declassé (a term of intervention for which I thank Janine Jones, as well as I thank her for an email correspondence that spurred the present comments). The white racial status of poor/middle class whites is attached to what they believe about their class status, which would be threatened by making common cause with poor nonwhites.
    The unjust killings of unarmed young men, without penalty, serve to underscore how bad it is to be members of those nonwhite groups, especially blacks, but not only blacks. In the United States, the low status of blacks and antiblack racism on the part of poor/middle class whites prevents a strong labor movement or even a strong social justice/democratic party from opposing elite programs of exploitation and now environmental depredation. In US history, the socioeconomic upward mobility of immigrants has also been a racial upward mobility. Most groups eventually become white, except for blacks, who need to remain black–––to be kept black/back–––as the bottom of a hierarchy that disguises class interests. Race is thus used, in general symbolic ways that nonetheless do not detract from individual cases of brutal tragedy, to mask the reality of class hierarchy, which may be the real hierarchy that elites care about. If this analysis is correct, although the ideology of Black Radical Liberalism proposed by Mills may succeed in standing Rawls on his head, it will accomplish little in reality without a lucid analysis of class and race together, which can be explained in terms that voters will understand and accept. Even this last is no guarantee for social justice, because we may be at an historical stage where powerful enough economic interests will get their way, no matter who is elected. But it underscores the importance of narrative.
    American blacks and whites do not share a narrative about American race relations. This is a problem because the call for change comes mainly from blacks. Whites, who are resistant to change, as well as blame, have the political, social and economic power to block change. Whites do not want to hear that the United States is a white supremacist society or that whites are privileged solely on the grounds of race. Blacks do not want to hear that the United States is a racially equal society and that their miseries are their own fault. Needed is a narrative that could move both sides into change. Such a narrative would be an account of contemporary black/white relations that was clear and easy to understand, without detailed or specialized knowledge of history, social theory, or philosophy. For a while, during the end of his candidacy and the early days of his first administration, Barack Obama provided such a narrative––he celebrated the success of blacks and expressed gratitude to whites for allowing that to happen. But black people quickly realized that Obama’s success was not the same thing as their success and many whites regretted Obama’s success. So we need a new narrative.
    -Naomi Zack, University of Oregon.

  2. Hi Charles,
    I think this is a very interesting proposal and would like to hear more about how you think we can determine when white advantages count as illict (or not). I take it that more conventional Rawlsians might try to settle questions about when advantage is illict and when it is not by appeal to the principles identified in the idealized world. I am sympathetic to the worry that this strategy has limits and will not allow us to explain all relevant cases of illict advantage, but it does seem like we then need some other way to (fully) ground our judgments about illict advantage.
    I can imagine that some Rawlsians want to stick with the strategy I mentioned (grounding judgments of illict and ok advantage at least in part on the principles thrown up by ideal theory) because they can’t see what other grounds we could give to all relevant judgments. In any case, I hope the question is not base on a confusion, and would be interested to hear more about the grounds you have in mind for judgements that advantage is illicit.

  3. Glad to see Charles on PEA Soup. I think the project of black radical liberalism is exciting and holds some appeal. This post understandably focuses on the task of showing why we have reason to opt for black radical liberalism over Rawlsian liberalism, unreconstructed. We learn that we should reconstruct liberalism rather than accept, as mainstream liberals do, that “the categories, crucial assumptions, and descriptive and normative frameworks of liberalism can be adopted with little change” when attempting to address the system of white supremacy.
    What I want to hear more about is why we have reason to opt for black radical liberalism over black Marxism or black nationalism, if indeed we do. I ask this especially because there are some interesting contrasts you lead us to draw. After the initial contrast of black liberalism vs. black radicalism, you set aside black radicalism to subdivide black liberalism into black mainstream liberalism and black radical liberalism. The latter synthesizes insights from black nationalism and black Marxism but is properly conceived of as a liberal rather than radical position.
    What you say also suggests, though, that we can return to black radicalism and not only subdivide it into black nationalism and black Marxism but subdivide those as well. You reject “state-commandist socialism” but suggest that this does not exhaust Marxism, thus suggesting that there is, perhaps, a black social democratic position that is properly conceived of as a radical rather than liberal position (even if we say that it is arrived at in part by synthesizing liberal insights with Marxist ones). Likewise, while rejecting essentialist versions of black nationalism, you suggest that not all black nationalism suffers from being essentialist, and perhaps there is some synthesizing of liberal insights here as well (obviously I aim for my version of black cultural nationalism to show up in this category).
    So I wonder: should I take black radical liberalism to be competing with not only black mainstream liberalism but all black radicalism for the title of “most promising candidate for an emancipatory African American political theory”? Or should I see black radical liberalism as really doing major battle only with mainstream liberalism and certain particular forms of radicalism, such as commandist socialism and essentialist nationalism? On the latter reading, there would be little of substance separating the viable liberal, Marxist, and nationalist positions and one could choose between them on the basis of personal idiosyncrasy or, maybe more importantly, contextual rhetorical advantage. Is this the right way to think about it?
    I’m also curious about where black feminism fits in the picture (are there feminist and non-feminist variants of black radical liberalism and every other position mentioned? is black feminism a form of black radicalism and thus subject to a dynamic already discussed above? or maybe black feminism cuts across the liberal/radical distinction? etc.).

  4. Hi Charles,
    Just to follow up on Brad Cokelet’s point, as you may know I’ve defended the beginnings of a robust account for how to extend Rawls to nonideal theory in roughly way you describe in the section, “ADAPTING RAWLS FOR CORRECTIVE JUSTICE.” (see ).
    Since you want to defend a Black Radical Liberalism, and you think this should be done by extending Rawls to the nonideal world in a way that corrects for illicit advantage and merges it with some notion of respect in social transition, why not go about it the way I have–namely:
    (A) Take Rawls’ principles of ideal theory as ideals (defended through a fair process relative to a strict-compliance assumption).
    (B) Plug them into a nonideal original position that models fairness under nonideal conditions, enabling free and equal citizens to (i) treat deviations from Rawls’ ideals as illicit advantages, and (ii) weigh ideals against transition-costs, and
    (C) Derive principles of fairness for nonideal conditions.
    I’ve also suggested that the kinds of nonideal principles that plausibly emerge from this model–principles of grass-roots organizing with certain structural features and substantive aims–are plausibly the kinds of corrective principles that you, and other critics of Rawlsian ideal theory, are looking for.
    Anyway, I’m just curious why, if you think we should extend Rawls to the nonideal, it shouldn’t be done by way of a “nonideal original position”? If (for a Rawlsian liberal) justice is fairness, and the original position models fairness, doesn’t it follow that a nonideal original position models fairness (i.e. correction for ilicit advantage and fair division of transition costs) in a nonideal setting?

Comments are closed.