The Realness of Race, Contracts, and Haptics

Angela Rose Myers
5 min readFeb 27, 2023

Jan. 24th Charles Mills, “The Racial Contract” Reflection

Listening to “To Be Real” By Cheryl Lynn

There is a trap that some folk fall into when they hear, ‘Race is a social construct.’ They hear, ‘Race is a social construct, therefore not real.’ Race is very much real and a social construct. It is real because it has been socially constructed. And Charles Mills goes deeper into how race formed a social construct that has shaped the epistemological history of the US and our world. In 2017, Barnard’s Center for Research on Women held a conference with a presentation on the Haptics of Blackness. Although socially constructed, Blackness and further race have shaped bodies and created their own juxtaposition or paradox of realness, tangibility and ephemerality, nebulousness, and amorphousness. My Blackness to me is so real. It has shaped every fiber of my being and my reality. Even if I wanted to, I could not cut Blackness from my identity. I’ve been racialized as Black, but also undergirding the fibers of the world and systems I live in, ideologies of race and Blackness are intertwined in those threads. Mills utilizes the language of a contract, as contracts turn ideas into realities. The Racial contract Mills describes incorporates the hard legibility of race that was used to delineate populations for decades and the spatiality of those racial categorizations.

As Mills states on page 11, the Racial Contract is a …

“set of formal or informal agreements or meta-agreements (higher-level contracts about contracts, which set the limits of the contracts’ validity) between the members of one subset of humans, henceforth designated by (shifting) “racial “ (phenotypical/genealogical/cultural) criteria Cr, C2, C3 … as “white, “ and coextensive (making due allowance for gender differentiation) with the class of full persons, to categorize the remaining subset of humans as “nonwhite” and of a different and inferior moral status, sub persons, so that they have a subordinate civil standing in the white or white-ruled polities the whites either already inhabit.”

Mills here is describing a cultural imperialism that is set to restructure societies and civilizations along lines that allow for the domination of humans and nature and justify a new alignment as a moral code. Yet, broader, is there an objective moral code in the state of nature itself, even if there are no policemen and judges to enforce it? I believe that there is, yet the state of the objective moral code has been skewed and manipulated by modern humans, not upheld by them. The white-centered philosophers of the 19th century believed they were the custodians of all things logical and the enforcers of the natural order. Unfortunately, their self-absorbedness led them to destroy the earth and destroy hundreds of civilizations, species and the true natural order of the world. Eugenicists and anthropologists and philosophers spent generations working to make legally and socially legible the difference of race. Something like the “One Drop” rule in the US defines race differently than in Brazil which categorizes race more phenotypically with also indicators of class and opportunity, historically. Mills answers the question of why.

Mills shows how the need for resources and Euro-American right to those resources is fundamental to this contract. “The Racial Contract is thus necessarily more openly material than the social contract. These strange landscapes (so unlike those at home), this alien flesh (so different from our own), must be mapped and subordinated. Creating the civil and the political here thus requires an active spatial struggle (this space is resistant) against the savage and barbaric, an advancing of the frontier against the opposition, a Europeanization of the world(43)”

So as the Euro-American needs change, as happens in different spaces and different periods, race, and many times the line between Whiteness and Non-whiteness, which in our minds can be so tangible, so exact, with hard lines, becomes fungible or indistinct.

In Chapter 2, Mills discusses how the Racial contract has been legally legible by the Catholic Church, the Dred Scott case, and other Euro-American documents. The theory Mills expands upon is how the right to space and resources was conceptualized through a white supremacist lens. Of course, White people have a right to Native and indigenous lands if they believe they are the only ‘people’ there to occupy them. Race then becomes a benchmark for humanity, human rights, property, and white opportunity hoarding. This becomes a mapping. A mapping of the world that can be broken up into what has been civilized, conquered, deemed ‘safe’, and coded.

The Racial Contract was built on the perimeters of European society. the Metropoles didn’t have to deal face-to-face with the same spatiality and interaction with these foreign people and foreign lands. but the Metropoles were integral in the creation of the legibility of these racial contracts as they reified their importance, wealth, and rights for further genocide and conquest.

The spatialized nature of the Racial contract is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the outlines of capitalism and resource hoarding are mapped onto the land and people, the spatialized nature of segregation will force resources one way, out, out of the land and the hands of conquested peoples into the metropoles, leaving the raced peoples and razed lands without the resources or tools necessary to uphold European performances of morality. These areas are now re-labeled high crime areas, ghettos, and hoods. but these communities have been divested from, their labor exploited, and their realities forever shaped by White supremacist violence and opportunity hoarding.

I believe Mill’s powerful use of a contract aptly shows how something like race becomes legally legible, written down, maintained, and thus manifested into reality into an identity that structures our society, and determines our health outcomes; and why such a contract was needed for the conquest, colonialization, and enslavement of not just people but lands. An opportunity for exploration is how different racial contracts manifested in different areas as a response to the resources desired by White capitalists. The areas of grey and murkiness that are debated out in courts, like Plessy V. Ferguson, which had an Octoroon Creole, Homer Plessy, address issues of his heritages and rights being 7/8ths white. Or in Thind v the US, where Bhagat Singh Thind argued his right to immigrate to the US as he was of the Caucasian, Aryan race as traced back to the original meanings as descended from the Caucus mountain range. These are instances where the unspoken agreements of the Racial contract have to be re-configured and aligned for jurisprudence and logic, just showing how illogical Race is. Because, as is underlined in Mills’ book, Race and further the Racial Contract, is determined and written by White supremacist ideologists and resource hoarders, so where it is unlike a true contract, the terms of engagement can change at a moment’s notice by the will of one party.

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Angela Rose Myers

Angela Rose Myers is the former President of the Minneapolis NAACP. Her goals are to create bridges between Black organizing and public policy