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Conrad Black’s rubbish column on racism a fine example of white privilege: Paradkar

When rich white people deny racism, it suggests white power is threatened. They attempt to derail advances by dictating the terms of conversation, Shree Paradkar writes.

Former media baron Conrad Black at the University Club in Toronto in 2014.

File / The Canadian Press

Former media baron Conrad Black at the University Club in Toronto in 2014.

Until fairly recently, I had stereotyped inane online commenters as ignoramuses living in their parents’ basements, and had assumed they existed on the fringes of society, only given charge after Donald Trump became U.S. president.

Recent articulations in Canadian media have exposed the naiveté of my thinking, showing me that ignorance, specifically in terms of understanding racism and colonialism, coupled with an arrogant entitlement of deference have always occupied centre space.

While I don’t usually waste my time or yours countering the work of other columnists, particularly those who use provocation as a tool to stave off their own impending irrelevance, I would like to tap a recent column in the National Post by Conrad Black as a poster story of white privilege. In it, Black declares racism practically dead in North America, and “as rare and unrigorous as the flat-earth society.”

Black, for those who may not know, is not just a columnist. Like Trump he was a rich boy who grew into a rich man. As a newspaper magnate, he was once a societal leader, a larger-than-life success story that came to a crash when he was jailed for fraud in the U.S. He remains influential in some quarters, which avails him of a platform to express views on a variety of topics.

Like Trump, he has fans who extend the Midas Touch philosophy to assume wealth or success in one field comes to mean expertise in all.

Like Trump, he has haters. These are people who loathe his ethics, or his personality or his perceived betrayal of Canada.

Neither side considers his lack of intellectual and emotional comprehension of racism as a reason to discount his views on that front.

This is the ultimate white privilege: being vested with the intrinsic authority to speak on subjects you know nothing about, without consequence.

Black denounces racism and says, “I cannot think of a more stupid and unjust reason for hiring or not hiring . . . than the ancient points of discrimination” such as race and gender.

Good for him.

But to say this and then say racism has been “reduced to a handful of deranged or sub-humanly stupid people,” ignores studies on discrimination in hiring practices in the labour market and visible outcomes of that discrimination.

Black praises German largesse in taking in Middle Eastern refugees, but fails to note rising xenophobia in the rest of Europe. “The great nation ruled when I was born by the Nazis,” he says, “has in the last three years admitted a million penurious refugees from Africa and the Middle East.”

He calls himself a historian yet ignores the role of those European nations now closing their doors to migrants in impoverishing Africa as well as the more modern role of the West in messing up the Middle East.

That blindness to legacies of violence led him to lament that in Canada “native militants” had “reviled him as a racist” just because he had previously said “native civilization was barely entering the Bronze Age when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 16th century.”

As in, he just doesn’t understand why imposing European settler yardsticks of progress and implicitly justifying European invasion that resulted in centuries of brutality cannot simply be considered fine and normal.

Many who never experience racism view it as a now shunned but once socially acceptable reality of a bygone era, kind of like smoking in the ’60s.

In line with that thinking, Black draws on history to say “most whites considered non-whites inferior, most Chinese considered non-Chinese inferior . . . I and a very large number of readers remember the murder of millions of Chinese and Cambodian and Vietnamese non-communists, and of Rwandans and Sudanese of a minority tribe or religion.”

This reduction of racism to “We all have prejudices,” springs from a half-baked understanding of the subject. It creates false equivalence between groups, just like Trump did with “all sides” at Charlottesville.

It results in ideas such as reverse racism — “racism against whites is acceptable,” Black says.

I’m not surprised when ordinary people shoot off such ideas in their emails to me. I am disappointed, however, when a rich white man with the privilege and authority to open minds instead normalizes ignorance.

All humans have prejudices and biases, of course they do. Humans discriminate. But racism isn’t just about human bias — it’s bias in the context of societal and historical power dynamics. It is also about supremacy, or the discrimination that is stitched into a socio-economic system that privileges one identity above others. In India, for instance, it benefits upper caste Hindus. In Singapore, it benefits Chinese. In Britain, it privileges men who attended private schools.

In North America and many parts of the world, thanks to colonialism, it benefits whites.

In my reading of them, serious newspapers no longer publish columns by men saying sexism is a relic of the past, or that glass ceilings are a feminist invention. Yet, such stories on racism by white people are allowed because delegitimizing progress on that front aligns with the interests of the existing racial hierarchy.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1857. “It never did and it never will.”

I understand when working-class whites chafe at the concept of white privilege. What privilege, if you’ve just lost a job and there are mouths to feed? I suspect some views would soften if they knew white privilege just means that in their exact same circumstance, a darker-skinned person is likely to be worse off.

But when rich white people deny racism, it suggests white power is threatened. They attempt to derail advances by dictating the terms of conversation.

Increasingly this is taking the form of discussions around, “Does racism exist?” It’s in their interest to keep everyone debating on square one rather than move on to, “What are we doing about it?”

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