Rhetoric and "race traitors" : reading Charles Mills' The Racial Contract as Afro-modern political thought
Olivia Nicole Gilbert
May 7, 2019
Department or Program
This thesis examines political philosopher Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997) within the context of the Afro-modern tradition of political thought. By reading The Racial Contract (hereafter TRC) as part of this tradition, I draw attention to aspects of the text that have been overlooked in the scholarly literature, namely the role of rhetoric in accomplishing the goals of the text. Specifically, TRC calls for white people to become “race traitors,” meaning those who reject their racial privilege and actively work to dismantle systems of white supremacy. I highlight the ways in which the rhetoric of TRC works to incite a subjective transformation in white readers, working on both cognitive and affective dimensions to re-orient their relationship to the world and those around them. The transformation of white readers hinges crucially on the epistemological insight of nonwhite people. In addition to the larger context of Afro-modern political thought, I show how TRC draws on rhetorical strategies from three other genres within modern political thought—manifestoes, French structuralism, and contract theory—and orients them toward the questions of white supremacy and racial domination. Ultimately, I argue that the role of rhetoric in TRC affords a distinct approach to the problem of white supremacy in the contemporary moment, a moment marked by forms of colorblind racism that often make white supremacy invisible to those who benefit from it most. TRC shows how rhetoric plays a role in the political, subjective, and epistemological transformations required if white people are to make a contribution to achieving racial justice.