Charles Mills (1951-2021) (updated)

Charles W. Mills, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), has died.

[photo by Sam Alcoff]

Professor Mills was well known for his work in social and political philosophy, African-American and Africana philosophy, critical philosophy of race, ethics, and Marxist thought. He is the author of over 100 journal articles, chapters, and commentaries, as well as six books: The Racial Contract, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism, Contract and Domination (co-authored with Carole Pateman), Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality, and Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. You can learn more about his writings here and here.

Mills was appointed professor of philosophy at CUNY in 2016. Prior to that, he spent a decade on the faculty at Northwestern University (2007-2016) and before that, 17 years at the University of Illinois, Chicago (1990-2007). Earlier appointments were at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Toronto, Campion College and the College of Arts and Sciences in Kingston, Jamaica (as a physics lecturer). He earned his his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and his undergraduate degree from the University of the West Indies.

He was honored by the profession, particularly over the past dozen years, in various ways, including being elected to the presidency of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association (APA), being selected to give the APA’s John Dewey Lectureship, becoming a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and delivering the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan.

Professor Mills died on the evening of Monday, September 20th.

Below is a video of Professor Mills giving the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, on “the issue of racial justice… and why the subject has been so little addressed in Western, and more specifically, American, political philosophy.”

UPDATE 1: This beautiful tribute to Mills by Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) discusses the importance of Mills’ work in philosophy, his professional generosity, and his capacity for being serious without being somber—“to laugh rather than cry in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous historical fortune.”

Memorial Notices, Obituaries, and Remembrances Elsewhere:

UPDATE 2: There will be an online memorial event “to give space for a remembrance and celebration of the life of Charles W. Mills” this Thursday (Sept. 23rd), organized by philosophers Leigh Johnson and Kris Sealy. You can learn more about it and register to speak at it here. The memorial will be recorded and will be made available for sharing at its conclusion.

UPDATE 3: On Sunday October 10, 2021, from 2pm to 5pm, EDT, there will be a virtual memorial for Charles Mills. There are details at the newly created Charles W. Mills memorial page.

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2 years ago

In addition to being a thoughtful, provocative and inspiring writer, he was a lovely guy. I just had dinner with him once, in Berlin, at a workshop organised by Mari Mikkola. He was warm and funny and attentive. He listened to people, and when he spoke they listened back. What a loss.

CUNY Grad Student
2 years ago

This is gut-wrenching news. The work of Charles was monumental, to be sure, but the world also just lost a genuinely kind, thoughtful human with one of the best senses of humor. I will miss him dearly. I feel privileged to have known him and taken a seminar with him. He was one of the main reasons I chose the program at the Graduate Center.

2 years ago

My condolences to his family, friends, and the philosophy community. I’m very sorry.

Michael Kates
Michael Kates
2 years ago

As I noted on Twitter: Very sad to hearing about the passing of Charles Mills. Amazing philosopher and person. I met him once at a conference when I was a lowly grad student. After my talk on justice in non-ideal theory, he came up to me and gave me some very encouraging remarks. I will never forget it.

Nick Huggett
2 years ago

I am very sad to learn this indeed. Charles was a wonderful colleague at UIC: although a giant in the field, he was very supportive of me when I arrived out of grad school, and was incredibly loved by students. His intellect, personality, and mentoring touched and influenced so many.

Syd Jeffers
2 years ago

So sad to hear this. I met him at a conference in London and shared a dinner table with him. A great loss.

Christina Hutchinson
2 years ago

One of the most influential writers and researchers of all time. I am so saddened by this news. My condolences to the family and friends of such an amazing individual.

GC alumnus
2 years ago

I remember going out to dinner with Charles after a Wednesday colloquium talk at the Graduate Center and being extremely impressed by his warmth and friendliness and generosity, even though I had never taken a class with him and did not work in his area of philosophy at all (though I had read some of his work, and always teach his excellent ‘But What Are You Really?’ when I do philosophy of race in introductory classes). Typically there was a $20 maximum for graduate students to spend on their dinner (at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan) which the department would compensate, and some professors were rather strict in enforcing that maximum. Charles laughed and told us to order whatever we wanted, explaining that it was not a big deal (and nearly a responsibility) for a well paid faculty to cover the bill for not-well-paid graduate students. His conversation was lively and engaged, and he seemed genuinely interested in what students had to say and their wellbeing, academic and otherwise. His death is a huge shock.

Richard A. Jones
2 years ago

The passing of Charles W. Mills is indeed a sad day for philosophers. Charles was a tireless contributor to philosophy in all its stripes. I knew him for his contributions to the Radical Philosophy Association’s conferences. He was brilliant, yet modest, original in his thought, and always willing to help students. I count myself as fortunate to have known him, his written works, and to have heard him speak at conferences. My deepest condolences to his family.
Richard A. Jones

Sam Livingston
2 years ago

Wow, I’m just about to give a presentation that featured Dr. Mills’s ideas. What a beautiful mind, gone too soon.

2 years ago

We are currently reading and using his book, The Racial Contract, for the outline of our Race and Racism studies class. What an insightful and inspiring person, I cannot wait to read more of his works. May he rest in peace.

Karl Antony Aiken
2 years ago

Shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of my childhood friend. We grew up on the University of the Wesi Indies campus in Jamaica. He was always brilliant as was fitting as the son of a brilliant father Prof. Gladstone Mills. Sadly we only met at funerals as he moved overseas while I stayed on in Jamaica where I also became an academic. He was lots of fun as a boy and we his friends in Jamaica shall miss him badly. RIP Charles.

barbara ransby
2 years ago

Charles was a beloved friend and colleague, a brilliant and rigorous scholar deeply committed to freedom and justice for all people. We honor him. He has bolstered us. He will be missed.
Barbara Ransby, UIC, Chicago

Nehanda Zandi Radebe
2 years ago

The youth of occupied Azania (South Africa) and members of the Soweto based Black Consciousness Pan Afrikaniat group, Blwckhouse Kollective, mourns the untimely passing of one of the most generous scholars we have been privileged to know. Prof Mills was the founding visiting-scholar of the Blackhouse Kollective Philosopher in Soweto Series in 2014. He visited us in our Meadowlands home in Soweto and the venue was packed to capacity with students, activists & ghetto philosophers. It is only fitting for BHK to pen a send-off tribute to his memory with us in Soweto, in occupied Azania (South Africa).

Marina Oshana
2 years ago

So saddened to hear this. Charles will be missed for many reasons, not least for his marvelous, wry sense of humor. He once remarked to me that “Philosophy is a lot like Antarctica— cold, sterile and white.” I knew then that I wasn’t alone in the profession. Rest In Peace, dear man.

George Jerry Sefa Dei
George Jerry Sefa Dei
Reply to  Marina Oshana
2 years ago

Very sad to hear of Charles passing. We have lost a pillar of deep and revolutionary academic thought. I remember him fondly in our graduate years at the University of Toronto with his deep sense of humility and of care. His respect for everyone, for academic excellence and the genuine pursuit of radical thought was an inspiration to me as a young graduate student. I cherish his love for Africa. Rest in power and thought, my friend.

Brandon del Pozo
2 years ago

Charles was on my dissertation committee. He was thoughtful and wonderful. I’ll miss him.

Mack Sullivan
2 years ago

This saddens me more than I could say. To echo what Michael said: as a lowly grad student, he was unfathomably kind to me; and I’d hoped (more desperately than I’d realized) to see him at another conference, and to tell him how much I’d learned from him. He was a great philosopher, and a kind person, and I will miss him.

Johh McCumber
2 years ago

Charles and I met when we were grad students at Toronto. He was an extremely important philosopher and an extraordinarily great guy. I miss him terribly already.

Val Barrett
2 years ago

Prof. Mills was a marvelous gentleman. I met him in Evanston when he was in Chicagoland and gave a talk at the high school where I was teaching. It was a great honor to meet a fellow Jamaican who was so influential . He was warm and kind .. a really nice gentleman. May God grant him eternal rest , and may perpetual light shine on him. Rest In Peace, Sir.

FaithBecky Amose’s
2 years ago

What a loss , we list a legend

2 years ago

So sorry to hear about Charles’ passing…way too soon. We were not close friends, but overlapped for a few years in the same form, when we attended Jamaica College in the 1960s. We were together on the school magazine committee. Lost touch after that. Our fathers were friends. His Dad was also a charming person. At J.C. we all thought of him as being a genius; he came first in every subject he took. And he wasn’t a bad athlete either.
RIP Charles, you have done J.C. and Jamaica proud.

David Concepcion
2 years ago

For a less formal presentation of some of his key ideas, see this interview with Dr. Mills conducted by undergraduate philosophy students:

Madeline Martin-Seaver
Madeline Martin-Seaver
Reply to  David Concepcion
2 years ago

Thank you for sharing this interview – I really enjoyed it and will bookmark it for future use.

Paul Gomberg
2 years ago

I just heard from my daughter. NO!!!!

The late Charles Chastain introduced Charles and me in 1990, when he came to UIC, because of our shared interest in Marx. Soon he read a paper I had written about opposing racism; he replied with comments that showed it wasn’t ready. Later in the 1990s we were in a reading group together when he was developing the ideas that emerged as The Racial Contract. I disagreed strongly, still adhering to a much more orthodox revolutionary Marxism.

Over the next twenty years, as Charles’s career and renown grew while I labored as a teacher at Chicago State University, he repeatedly went out of his way to help me, to be a friend and supportive colleague, despite our deep disagreements.

That is my testimony about Charles: he was so helpful, supportive, warm, thoughtful, generous, and just so damned nice! He was a brilliant and amusing critic of the narrowness of so much analytic thought. I’ll miss you, Charles!

Badru Ronald Olufemi
2 years ago

Charles W. Mill was a great philosopher of race. He was a kind man. In fact, he gave me three of his books: Racial Contract; Blackness Visible and Contract & Domination.

May his soul rest in perfect peace.

Badru, R.O. , PhD
(Associate Professor)
Political Philosophy and Development Ethics,
Politics & International Relations
Lead City University,

cheshire calhoun
2 years ago

I am so very sad that we have lost Charles. He seemed an eternal spirit. He had a wonderful way of combining sharp criticism with an appreciation for the absurd. In “Ideal Theory as Ideology,” after observing how liberal political philosophy proceeds with silence on oppression and with idealized models of social institutions and human cognition and psychology, he exclaims in exasperation “How in God’s name could anybody think that this is the appropriate way to do ethics?” I can just hear him saying that in his lovely Jamaican accent, challenging the audience to think about the absurdity of not paying attention to how social life and people in the real social world operate. He was such a wonderful person to be around–so smart and so ready to laugh. Many years ago when the APA met in DC, the hotel caught fire at night and we were all herded into the ballroom–an absurd situation if ever there was one with philosophers milling about, some in their p.j.s. I joined Charles to wait out our ballroom confinement thinking he would be an excellent person to share that weird time with. I was not wrong. Bye, Charles. You will be sorely missed.

Mary de Torcat
2 years ago

I’m so shocked by this sad news. I never met Dr. Mills personally, but studied his book “The Racial Contract” for a course in graduate school. I had just returned to Canada after several decades in South America and found myself being riveted to the book. It fascinated me that I was constantly finding parallels between his theses and the political opposition in Venezuela (I was writing my thesis on the Bolivarian Revolution there). Dr. Mills had focused his research for the book on the North American experience, and I was trying to find an endogenous source within South America to no avail. I reached out to Dr. Mills, and thus began a wonderful correspondence that continued for almost a year. Dr. Mills also tried to find for me someone within Latin America that was doing, or had done, research within this area, and when he wasn’t able to, he encouraged me to write from my own perspective, which I did in the end thanks to him. He was so beautifully supportive, a kind and generous human being, as well as a brilliant scholar. I’m greatly saddened by this loss, and wish to extend my sincere condolences to Dr. Mills family.

Hermione Clarissa McKenzie
2 years ago

Sad to hear of Charles’ death. He was a generation younger than myself: my late husband Herman and I were close friends of his dad, Professor Gladstone “Charles” Mills, and his mom Winnie. His parents were very happy to see his academic excellence. But Charles (Junior) was also a generous colleague: as I have been cataloguing Herman’s library, I have encountered several academic articles published by Charles and sent to Herman with friendly notes. I actually had planned to write to Charles to acknowledge that friendship, but alas I cannot do so now. He was a valued thinker, and I am sad that he has left us so soon.