Philosopher Charles W. Mills, who cut his academic teeth in Canada, dies at 70

A London native of Jamaican parentage who grew up in Jamaica

Charles Mills

Charles W. Mills, a social and political philosopher who sought to rethink Western liberalism, arguing that white supremacy undergirded the modern world and that philosophy had ignored fundamental issues of race and justice, died Sept. 20 at a care center in Evanston, Ill. He was 70.

The cause was cancer, according to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he had taught since 2016.

A London native who grew up in Jamaica, studied philosophy in Canada and taught for decades in the United States, Dr. Mills was an incisive critic of Western political theory, pushing philosophers to engage with the world as it is rather than how they wished or imagined it to be. In particular, he noted that his overwhelmingly White field seemed to have little to say about the subjugation and brutalization of people of color.

“I like to think of Mills as our black Socrates,” fellow philosopher Christopher Lebron wrote in a 2018 article for the Nation, “roaming the philosophical streets, asking people why they think a society like ours, stained by a history of racial horrors, is not more ashamed of itself, and why its leading minds do not make that shame a motivating force in the struggle for a more just society.”

Dr. Mills was best known for his first book, “The Racial Contract” (1997), a straightforward but incendiary extended essay. He argued that the social contract, a political concept that emerged during the Enlightenment to explain how people consent to surrender some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of other rights, was in fact a racial contract, founded on an assumption of White dominance and created at a time when Europeans were enslaving people of color.

“White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory,” he wrote in the book’s opening lines. Indeed, he added, an undergraduate could learn about aristocracy, socialism, libertarianism and the like while reading thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls and Nozick — but “there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years.”

Dr. Mills used the term to refer not only to Klan rallies and the enslavement of Black people, but also to the transfer of wealth and opportunities from people of color more broadly. He was less concerned with issues of personal prejudice than in the way race shaped politics, society and the academy itself, where his thesis shocked many of his colleagues.

“It was so provocative, so deviant from the conventional mainstream philosophical wisdom, that even now, nearly a quarter century later, it is still beyond the pale of acceptance,” he told the Nation in January. “White supremacy,” he added, was “a taboo phrase,” describing “a reality that can no longer be admitted.”

In a tribute to Dr. Mills, University of Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan said that his work possessed “an unusual combination of rigor and daring,” and offered a liberating new tool set that philosophers could use to address issues of race, gender and class. His writing, she added, made people “free to philosophize in a way that, to paraphrase Mills’ first intellectual hero Marx, seeks not merely to describe the world, but to transform it.”

Charles Wade Mills was born on Jan. 3, 1951, in London, where his Jamaican parents were graduate students. The family soon moved to Kingston, the Jamaican capital, where Dr. Mills was introduced to politics at a young age.

His father, a government professor at the University of the West Indies, chaired a nonpartisan committee to overhaul Jamaica’s electoral system in the 1970s; his mother, who trained as a nurse, became the head of the country’s YWCA. An uncle also served as Jamaica’s ambassador to the United Nations.

His marriage to Elle Olliviere ended in divorce. Survivors include a brother.

In his last book, “Black Rights/White Wrongs” (2017), Dr. Mills examined the way in which some White people refused to recognize the reality of racial exploitation, and looked ahead to the possibility of a new, “deracialized” liberalism that acknowledged the history of white supremacy.