This week, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J released a musical gem to the world. Feeling that musicians and performing artists have been failing to address this issue well, Brad Paisley decided to tackle the issue of racism head on. In a new song called “Accidental Racism*,” Paisley lamented how the legacy of slavery and racism is still negatively affecting our daily interactions. As a person of color, this is something I’ve known since sentience. I have lived this every day and will likely continue to experience the realities of racist institutions until the day I leave this Earth. The idea that Brad Paisley was going to teach me something I didn’t already know seemed dubious to begin with. I guess it was always possible that I pre-judged Paisley and that he and LL Cool J had incredibly valuable contributions to make to a national conversation about race in America. But this was not the case. Instead, what we got was a combination of faulty analogies, false equivalencies, flimsy excuses and poor justifications. It’s easy to acknowledge that Mr. Paisley’s attempt to address racial tensions in the United States may have started from a place of genuine concern, but it quickly descended into madness.
In the second verse, Paisley describes himself as a humble Southern boy, distressed by the violent and regrettable history and legacy of slavery. He later goes on to suggest that there isn’t much he can do about it so we should probably just let the whole thing go. To his credit, he tries to explain that Reconstruction and the attempts to rebuild the South and the Union after the abolition of slavery has left a lot to be desired as far as racial justice and relations. However, he seems to be incapable or wholly unwilling to try to empathize with realities of people of color in the United States. Or even attempt to comprehend the pervasiveness of negative cultural and sociopolitical consequences to slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.
The most frustrating passage of the song is when Paisley tries to convince listeners that we shouldn’t be so skeptical of Southern pride and that opposition to the image of the Confederate flag is simply misplaced blame towards Southerners who had no hand in the institution of slavery.
‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
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
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
It is difficult for me to take this seriously. Cognitively, I am well aware that most of the white people with whom I interact had no hand in perpetuating slavery and segregation. That they didn’t willingly or tacitly endorse legalizing policies that allowed black people to be treated like less than human, like second-class citizens. However, that does not mean that I should ignore or refuse to acknowledge that despite the illegality of Jim Crow laws and segregation, we live in a racist society. One that is rife with daily microaggressions, the reinforcement of “white is right” ideology in the media, and institutional policies that perpetuate certain races and classes of people over others.
None of these things are accidents.
They are the direct result of living in a society that has struggled to recover from a painful history of enslavement, violence, miscegenation and the tearing apart of families. They are the direct result of our inability to sustain a national public dialogue about race without accusations of sensitivity, entitlement, and blaming. They are the direct result of black people in America constantly being told in coded or clear language to know their place. To not ask for too much. To be grateful for what we have. But here is the issue – even after slavery ended, after Jim Crow laws were declared illegal and after schools were integrated, harmful racial attitudes, institutional policies that favor certain demographics, cultural ideals that value some aesthetics and bodies more than others remained. I experience these realities every day. It’s commonplace to me, but it isn’t just or right. And I know I’m not alone in that thinking. Should we do what Paisley suggests and not judge him for willfully sporting a symbol that to many represents one of the darkest times in our country’s history from which we still haven’t recovered? Or give him a pass for his good intentions? After all…we’re not slaves anymore. We achieved integration. We’re allowed to subsist. Shouldn’t that be good enough? Shouldn’t we just let it go?
*Note: The original video has since been removed from Youtube. Read the full lyrics here.