How to Make Some Sense of “Accidental Racist”: Ask a Southerner
You must’ve heard the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song “Accidental Racist” by now, right? Sure you have! Like some of the stranger attempts at racial dialogue we’ve seen lately (*cough* Philadelphia mag *cough*), it’s been called an “epic fail,” actually racist, and just plain bad. Take a listen:
I don’t personally agree with all the criticism. I think the song’s pretty good in comparison, for example, to that “Game On” song those two teenagers sang for Rick Santorum. But who cares what I think? The song is obviously about growing up in the South — which I don’t know shit about — and thus feeling both pride in where you’re from and shame in what your ancestors have done (almost an actual line from the song). So! In order to get a better perspective on the matter, I reached out to Paul Bowers, a South Carolina native and badass reporter at Charleston, S.C.’s alternative weekly, Charleston City Paper, where’s he’s been a staff writer covering news and politics since 2011. After sharing many beers with him in Washington, D.C. this fall, I knew he was the thinking man to tell us like it is. He did not disappoint.
What do you make of Brad Paisley being caught “between southern pride and southern blame”?
I’ve only recently come around to the idea that there are reasons to take pride in being Southern. Growing up in South Carolina and Texas, I always worked to make sure I didn’t pick up a Southern accent, and to this day a lot of people can’t tell where I’m from. As an older Southern gentleman once told me, “If ya tawk liiike theeeis, peeple don’ expeck too much out o’ ya.” Southerners are the butt of all kinds of stereotypes, and we tend to only show up in national news headlines when our governors are philandering in South America, our children are attending segregated proms, or our state makes No. 1 for child poverty/dropout rates/obesity/sexually transmitted infections.
For much of my adolescence, I bought the lie that Southernness is a badge of shame. But then I started reading Faulkner and listening to the Drive-By Truckers, and I realized it was possible to embrace my Southernness without being a complete yokel. I traveled the world a little bit — saw New York, Chicago, New Delhi, Dublin, Monrovia — and every time I came back, I realized what a special place I had the privilege to call home. All those things you see in the news, including the good-ol’-boy politics and the persistent legacy of racism, are absolutely a part of our story. But so are the hippies and permaculturists of Asheville, N.C. So is Muscle Shoals. So is Outkast. So is an old-fashioned insistence on hospitality. So is the Charleston food scene, which attracts world-class chefs and high-dollar patrons.
In answer to your question, I’m right there with Brad on that one line. I’m proud of where I’m from, but I’m also embarrassed every time we prove the stereotypes true.
Slate says Paisley presents himself as brave for talking about race in “Accidental Racist.” Do you think that’s true? What’s the racial conversation like in Charleston?
Brave? Sure he’s brave. He knew he’d get backlash for it. But I don’t award points for bravery if you go about it like a moron.
In Charleston, folks still spend a lot of time talking about race relations in terms of the Civil War. We have big blow-ups between the NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans every now and then, and there have been some tense moments during the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States. When the SCV held a “Secession Ball” to commemorate the anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union, there was a big hoopla. One guy, a black National Parks Service ranger, actually called leaders from the two groups together for a meeting, but I’m not sure what either side took away from it.
You might recall that, until the very end of the 20th century, South Carolina flew the rebel flag on top of the Statehouse dome in Columbia. The flag is still on the Statehouse grounds, though, and you can see it very clearly while driving down Main Street toward the Statehouse. History and symbols are important; I’m not going to argue against that. But I think when we pick all our fights about historical racism, we gloss over modern-day, institutional racism — like racially lopsided unemployment and incarceration rates, or the fact that the Charleston County School District’s four-year graduation rate last year was 72 percent overall, 60 percent for African Americans, and just 50 percent for Latinos.
What would you say the song gets right — and what’s it get wrong?
At this point in the interview, I should mention that I am a white male, and I guess I can’t fault Brad for calling a spade a spade: “I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the Southland.” OK, fine, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone use the term “Southland” outside of a country song before.
I also agree with Cool James when he speaks less than favorably about William T. Sherman’s march to the sea. I’m no military historian, but scorched-earth seems like a morally iffy policy to me.
As for what’s wrong, I agree with a lot of what’s been written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rembert Browne, and the many other people who have responded to this silly song with thoughtful essays. Brad and LL are arrogant if they think that they speak for their races, Brad is at least a little bit racist for picking a rapper with little history of social commentary to comment on race just because he’s black, and — for crying out loud — the Confederate flag is not some innocuous historical relic. Brad Paisley knew damn well what the flag on his shirt would mean to that Starbucks employee. Saying the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern-day white supremacy movements is like saying the “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag has nothing to do with the Tea Party.
The passage that really bothers me is this one, because I’ve heard the same reasoning from many a redneck in my day: “And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history/ Our generation didn’t start this nation/ And we’re still paying for the mistakes/ That a bunch of folks made long before we came.” Southerners are guilty of more recent sins than slavery. Try Jim Crow. Try institutional racism. Try — I don’t know — Hootie and the Blowfish. Quit reducing the ongoing struggle for equality in America to “fightin’ over yesterday.”
Then, of course, there are all the false equivalencies. In Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s world, not judging a man’s gold chains equals forgiving and forgetting the chains of slavery, and a politically neutral do-rag equals a racially insensitive T-shirt. Not even close, guys.
Is this a common occurrence amongst people you know — wearing Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts and becoming an accidental racist?
Sure, although I’m not always certain that the racism is accidental. A lot of Southern white people like to wear screen-printed T-shirts that feature scenes involving deer, hunting rifles, and Confederate flags, and they chalk it up to “heritage.” Sometimes, when only white people are in the room, they like to flap their gums about how integration ruined everything. Not all white people, but some of them. I hear these things because I am white and they assume I am on their side.
Should the guy in Starbucks more often read the red flag shirts loud and clear?
The guy in Starbucks has every right to call Brad Paisley out on his stupid Skynyrd shirt. Of course, when you bash the Confederate flag, you’ll occasionally find yourself in a debate against a re-enactor or history buff who will try to tell you that the Civil War was about states’ rights or Abe Lincoln’s insatiable thirst for Southern blood, but most of them are actually pretty calm in my experience. Good luck with that debate.
Have you ever seen one of those “You wear your X, I’ll wear mine” t-shirts, where “your X” means Malcolm X and “mine” is the Confederate flag?
No, but I’ve seen plenty of heinous Confederate flag T-shirts. Growing up, it amazed me that students who wore shirts to school advertising alcohol were punished, but the principals didn’t bat an eye at shirts that said things like “If I’d known all this, I would have picked my own cotton.” Then there were all the “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012″ bumper stickers in the run-up to Obama’s re-election. Dear Lord.
What part of “Accidental Racist” do you find more offensive: Brad Paisley’s part or LL Cool J’s?
It’s a tough call, but in the end, I take more offense at Mr. Paisley’s contribution. The problem with this song is the same problem I have with another track on his album, “Those Crazy Christians”: It misrepresents a minority group’s grievances against a dominant cultural group. In “Those Crazy Christians,” Paisley sings from the perspective of some ne’er-do-well who thinks the members of America’s No. 1 religion are “crazy” because they pray before football games, go on mission trips to Africa, and bake each other casseroles. If Paisley really thinks those are the biggest gripes that American atheists have against American Christians, then he is living a deluded and sheltered life.
Anyways, you know who could do a much better ebony-and-ivory song about the Confederate flag? Mos Def and Jason Isbell. I’d play the crap out of that song.
Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso