Yesterday, a new song by country guy Brad Paisley, a collaboration with LL Cool J, blew up the internet. It was entitled “Accidental Racist.” There are many things that are wrong with it. These are some of the things that are wrong with it.
1. The title.
The title is wrong. “Accidental Racist” is not a good thing to title your song if you want people to take your Serious Thoughts About Serious Racial Strife seriously. Even if the speaker in the song (whom I do Brad Paisley the kindness of assuming is not necessarily him) is a racist by error and not by design, he’s still copping to participating in racism. Just, y’know, as a series of hilarious mishaps and misunderstandings.
Somebody needs to make a dance-pop parody sequel called “Oops, I Was A Racist Again” because that would be very funny to me.
2. The music.
The music is also wrong. In the opening bars, it becomes apparent that this is a MOURNFUL BALLAD. So not only do we have a country song entitled “Accidental Racist,” but we have a SAD country song entitled “Accidental Racist,” and it’s not sad because the titular Racist is eventually beaten by a crowd of enraged people who hate racism and who are now facing criminal charges.
No, it’s sad because IT’S SAD WHEN PEOPLE THINK YOU’RE A RACIST AND MAYBE YOU ARE BUT YOU’RE ALSO A NICE GUYYYYYY. You know, like maybe you don’t hate on ALL people of color! Just the ones who dress funny or who don’t smile at you. Or the ones taking the jobs you would never ever do for pay you would consider insulting. But not the dude who makes your coffee at Starbucks! He’s all right! And not the guy who mows your lawn! He’s cool. José or something, right? Something like that.
3. The lyrics.
The lyrics are extremely wrong. Paisley has kindly produced them on his website, so this is from the horse’s accidentally racist mouth.
To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
Exhibit A: Lynyrd Skynyrd, rock band, founded 1964, has sold 23 million records over the course of their existence, and sometimes they employ the confederate flag on their merchandise and in their live shows.
Exhibit B: The Confederacy, rebel government seceded from the United States, founded 1861, for the purpose of retaining slavery as an economic and social cornerstone under the cloak of “states’ rights,” regardless of any pesky moral issues with the institution. Symbolically represented by the never-officially-recognized but still ubiquitous confederate flag.
As of the 1860 census, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the United States. All of these slaves were in the south, as the north had been abolishing slavery state by state over the previous few decades. Slaves nevertheless represented one-eighth of the US population. Albeit a portion of the population that did not count as people, but were in fact property. Like Lynyrd Skynyrd albums are today.
And so, the Accidental Racist would have us believe that at some point, the confederate flag stopped being associated with the horror of slavery -- not to mention the deaths of roughly 625,000 soldiers (including 40,000 freed black men fighting for the Union Army) on both sides of the American Civil War that resulted from the South’s decision to secede -- and got overruled when it was used by a fucking musical act.
Ignorance is a powerful thing.
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view
I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
Oh sure, the Accidental Racist (AR for short) explains, I may LOOK like an asshole, but it’s just an ILLUSION. I know that this flag has other meanings to other people! I don’t need your education on this! I’m trying to understand why you are so offended! Because I’m from the south and cannot possibly get what it’s like to not be from the south! And I’ll probably wear this shirt even if you explain, because I don’t care! BUT IT’S JUST AN ACCIDENT. REBEL PRIDE!
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
Subtext: SLAVERY? Would it be so impossible to say SLAVERY? Sorry the south has a legacy of ENSLAVING PEOPLE? What is this hand-waving nonsense? I don’t even.
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
Ah, we can’t fix history, and our good-natured AR buddy is just BORED with all this annoying bringdown of race this and oppression that. He wasn’t even THERE, yo. Can’t we let bygones be bygones?
Nope. Because the US is still reaping the damage that slavery has sown, and will be for a long while. We’re only about five generations removed from the end of the Civil War, and that doesn’t even touch Reconstruction (which we’re about to come to below). Today’s racism against black folks in the US particularly owes a HUGE portion of its existence to the preceding 200 years of American slavery.
Besides, lots of good shit comes from the south. Peaches. Grits. Biscuits and sawmill gravy. Hush puppies. Greens. Barbecued pork. Bacon in everything. Oranges. Boiled peanuts. Sweet tea. Um, apparently all my favorite things about the south are food. (I had to ask Marianne for non-food help here, and she pointed out that the weather’s also nice. And fireflies.)
There are lots of OTHER southern things to be proud of is what I’m saying. Hanging on to a flag that ultimately represents a period in which certain southern states WENT TO WAR to fight for the privilege to enslave human beings? It looks like stubbornness. I know y’all don’t mean it to, Accidental Racists of the world, but it does. Because really, no matter how much you personally love that flag, no amount of vague “Southern Pride!” explanations are going to scrub all the blood from it.
They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin
FIXED THE BUILDINGS? FIXED THE BUILDINGS? FIXED. THE. BUILDINGS?
Okay, for those who are literal thinkers and totally lacking an education in history, Reconstruction was not a period in which some war-damaged houses were repaired, while, I guess, people cried. The purpose of Reconstruction was to rebuild the devastated southern states into a governmental, economic, and social systems that would include and support the newly freed black people among them as full citizens.
Correctly, the more radical elements of Republicans in Congress (political parties were way different at the time) guessed that just because the slaves had been freed did not mean the white folks living in the south would shake hands with them and respect their new status without a little assistance. Maybe even a push. Or a rough and continuous shoving. So new local governments were installed, and freed slaves were allowed to vote in them, as well as hold office. Public schools were founded and funded.
The idea was to enforce the Constitutional equality of freedpersons by putting said persons in positions to have a say in their community, while also suppressing southern nationalism among the former rebels who thought all these black folks should still be in the fields picking their cotton for free.
Yes, some damaged buildings were probably repaired. But that was the least of our worries. To give you an idea of the passionate ideological battles going on, it was Reconstruction policies that led to the founding of the original Ku Klux Klan in 1865, and this terrorist group employed murder, violence, and threats to intimidate those in favor of a racially unified south in their efforts to restore white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan would subsequently wage campaigns of fear against anyone who fought for racial equality for a hundred years, straight up through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and even beyond.
Reconstruction is a HUGE TOPIC, is my point. It is not about buildings. Also, this "I'll never really understand you so I'm kinda reluctant to even try" bullshit? Is bullshit.
Anyway, this is where things get really confusing, because LL Cool J inexplicably turns up:
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here
Oh, James. “Now my chains are gold” -- because once they were iron? I -- are you sure you want to make this analogy? “Dodgin’ invisible white hoods” -- I get that, because you can’t always tell who is gonna be a racist asshole by looking. But, um, if you see a dude in a confederate flag shirt? I think it’s pretty safe to assume that guy is TOTALLY FINE with black folks choosing to avoid him. Because if it bothered him? HE’D PROBABLY TAKE OFF THE SHIRT.
Next we get to a shared chorus, in which Paisley sings his “whiiite maaaaaan” woes and LL interjects with his thoughts:
I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
WHAT? WHAT IS THIS? Are y’all honestly suggesting that a DO RAG -- a fucking DO RAG -- is potentially as offensive to white folks as THE CONFEDERATE FLAG is to black folks? Or even ANYBODY WHO IS WORKING TO FIGHT RACISM?
South, I know you. I have traveled all over you, urban and rural. I even have family in you. You are not bad people. You are not a bad place. You’re actually very pretty and the vast majority of folks living in you are not heinous racists but are honest, kind, intelligent people. And you CERTAINLY do not have the monopoly on heinous racism, as the shit I've seen and heard over my years here in Boston easily rivals anything I've seen in your region.
But for real, Y’ALL NEED TO TALK TO YOUR COUNTRY SINGER NOW BEFORE HE TOTALLY SETS YOU BACK ANOTHER HUNDRED YEARS. (As an aside? Brad Paisley is actually from West Virginia -- WEST, that’s right, the part of Virginia that broke away to align itself with the Union in the Civil War. IRONYYYY.)
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
Oh god. HOW LONG IS THIS SONG ANYWAY?
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)
I’m a son of the new south
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
BYGONES. See, this is how historical horrors happen again, and again, and again. Because it’s so much more convenient to just forget terrible things. It’s better to forget the slaves literally beaten to death, or permanently scarred by the whip, to forget the epidemic rape committed by slave owners against their "property," to forget the institutional and social denial that Africans and their descendents were actually human beings and not slightly smarter animals, to forget that runaway slaves would often rather kill themselves (and their children) than return to captivity, to forget that slaves lived in a world where they owned nothing and could be sold or abused in whatever manner their masters chose with no justice and no recourse, all the while being reminded that they are nothing, they are less than nothing, they are disposable.
This is not a minor chapter in American history. It is, to a large extent, on the backs of slaves that this country was built. And while white folks like me may not bear personal individual responsibility for this having happened, we all benefit from the legacy of slavery on a daily basis. We benefit from the ever-lingering effects of white privilege, whether we want to or not.
It’s hard to recognize this, because we have forgotten. So many of us get to carry on believing racism has nothing to do with us, and that we have nothing to do with it, when really it touches us every day. Which is why we should never forget. Which is why these should never be “bygones.” It's not about guilt. It's not about punishment. It's about being accountable to our own history.
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
It’s real, it’s real
4. It's wrong that this song is not a joke.
It is EXTREMELY wrong that it’s not a joke. Paisley talked on the Ellen show about this today, and straight up says that he doesn’t know what he means, but there’s like, racism and stuff? In the world? And we should fix that. But apparently without actually DOING anything to change it. Like we should just all be friends with LL Cool J and then it’ll be fine.
BUT ONE OF MY BEST FRIENDS IS BLACK for the bingo! Damn, I should have made a bingo card first. Oh well, this post is long enough.
To be fair, this could be radical in some quarters. These could be radical ideas to some of Paisley's fans. And I don't doubt that Paisley's aw-shucks befuddlement is sincere. But honestly? I'm not big on assuming that the whole of the southern US is this ignorant about race. I mean, the obvious point here is that all of the Accidental Racist's SOUTHERN PRIDE blathering totally erases the existence of black southerners. Most of whom probably don't see the confederate flag as just a bland reminder of their region and their "pride" in same.
5. It’s also wrong that too many people will roll their eyes and write off the outrage.
It’s just a dumb song, who cares? People are so SENSITIVE.
But it’s not just a dumb song. The fact that this can be recorded and put out there in 2013 speaks volumes about how far we have to go. On the upside, the disgust and indignation with which it has been met also says something about how far we’ve come. Nevertheless, a lot of road still stretches out before us. This is not helping. Yes, we need to have better conversations. But the first step in those conversations is listening to the voices that are least heard. This isn't you, Accidental Racist.
The Accidental Racist’s need to feel blindly proud of his background, while refusing to consider its troubling context and the narrowness of his perspective, is bullshit. And assuming that we can all just make friends and let stuff go without actually analyzing the systematic ways in which racism continues to have powerful effects on the lives of people of color as both individuals and as a group is frankly insulting. It’s a step backward.
If you’re thinking I’m being too hard on this song? What the fuck ever. I’d rather be a politically correct tight-assed looking-to-be-offended radical than an Accidental Racist.
If only we had a flag for that, I’d wear it every day. Proudly.