In order to fully understand the outbreaks of recent protests after the recent police killing of George Floyd, a Black American, it is imperative to reach back centuries to contextualize the racial dynamics and injustices of America. This event was not exclusively the product of a rogue, under-trained or over-militarized police force (though all of those factors did play a role), nor was it the result of insufficient bias and inclusivity training. Instead, Mr. Floyd’s murder is the product of something much greater: an idea the philosopher Charles W. Mills called the “racial contract,” which the American state has upheld since its founding. Mills’s idea originally posited that white people (specifically Enlightenment thinkers) only felt the need to uphold their political and moral ideals when constructing relationships with other white people, but were okay with violating those ideals when dealing with non-white people. Within the context of American history, the racial contract has come to represent an understanding about which individuals deserve the opportunity to prosper (or even to live) and which don’t. Woven into America’s national DNA, the racial contract is incredibly pervasive and explains how the American state has deliberately and intentionally failed Black people since before its inception. 

Some products of the American racial contract are well-known and widely condemned. For instance, from 1619 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, the racial contract justified chattel slavey. While some Americans were granted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the racial contract meant that white citizens were only wanting to grant those rights along racial lines, since, under the terms of the racial contract, those principles unjustly were not applied to Black people. However, it is crucial to understand the ways in which this racial contract has shaped the American state’s relationship with Black people beyond slavery and the ways in which it continues to do so. 

One of the most glaring inequalities within the contemporary racial contract is America’s policing and justice systems. Adam Serwer, a journalist for The Atlantic, explains the racial contract still includes “underlying assumptions of white innocence and black guilt,” which has created a society in which white and Black people effectively live under two separate justice systems. On an individual level, perhaps nothing symbolizes this better than Amy Cooper’s decision to call the police on Christian Cooper after he politely requested that she re-leash her dog. When Amy Cooper called the police, she fully expected the weight of racial prejudice and institutional racism to back her unquestionably; sadly, this was probably an accurate assumption. This racially unjust idea of Black guilt is pervasive and has been reinforced over time: Tropes such as the myth of the “Black Rapist” have existed for centuries and are used to justify white America’s societal decisions to strip Black people of the right to innocence, freedom, human rights and so many other liberties that all citizens should possess. 

However, the story of Christian Cooper is just one instance of this omnipresent inequality. Today, the racial contract’s presumption of Black guilt is the cornerstone of American legal injustice and mass incarceration. Statistically, the disparities in incarceration between white and Black people are astounding: Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated and make up 34 percent of the correctional population, despite constituting only around 13 percent of the total American population. The presumption of Black guilt goes beyond the prisons themselves and into every nook and cranny of the American legal system. For instance, Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Additionally, some cities across America engage in “policing for profit,” a system that involves generating revenue by aggressively ticketing (primarily Black) residents. Broadly speaking, all of these examples are only allowed to exist because the American racial contract implicitly permits the state to deny Black citizens the presumption of innocence.  

In tandem with this, the racial contract also creates limits on who deserves to prosper economically and prevents America from properly approaching past injustices. For instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the idea of reparations, saying “I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea.” Although McConnell is correct that chattel slavery ended over 150 years ago, this is a vast oversimplification and of the issue which is only justifiable in the context that Black people are not entitled to the same economic opportunities as whites. Since America’s founding, the state has deliberately limited Black Americans’ ability to accumulate wealth on the basis of race: Although chattel slavery was eliminated, it was replaced by sharecropping, redlining and racially-biased legislation such as the G.I. Bill of 1944.

The disparities the racial contract still justifies are too great to cover entirely: There is political suppression, the formation of the contemporary police force, inequities in medical care and quality of life and so much more that impact Black lives in America. However, understanding the racial contract as a concept is essential to understanding that the injustices perpetrated against Black lives are not products of misguided individuals acting outside socially accepted norms. Instead, they are the result of the racial contract which white Americans enacted in conjunction with the nation’s founding that systemically and institutionally targets and dehumanizes Black individuals. Today, this contract still enables white Americans to accept and encourage institutional racism, systemic bias, passive acceptance and individual bigotry — allowing them to ignore their own nation’s self-proclaimed principles and values in the context of racial relations. 

Zack Blumberg is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu

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