Viewpoint: You Can’t Be An “Accidental” Racist

Bigotry is never accidental, as the bizarre song by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J remind us.

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Jerod Harris / ACMA2013 / Getty Images for ACM

Musicians LL Cool J and Brad Paisley backstage during the 48th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards – ACM Fan Jam at Orelans Arena on April 7, 2013 in Las Vegas

I was driving home toward Brooklyn when Questlove called, out of breath with excited indignation. “Yo man, have you heard ‘Accidental Racist’?” I hadn’t. He was apoplectic. “You’ve gotta listen to this song! I can’t believe they went there. And LL’s worse than Brad! You gotta write something about this.”

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I Googled it as I drove. I know I shouldn’t have but I couldn’t help it. The title had me nervous: racism is the exercise of power so you can’t really be an accidental racist though you can benefit from and receive white privilege without attempting to. Maybe that’s what Brad and LL meant. I was trying to have an open mind, but the phrase conjured up an apology rooted on a disavowal of fault that made me cringe. To hear whites say that their privileged position isn’t their fault is insulting. And while recording artists can sometimes discuss race in smart ways (think of the work of Public Enemy or Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,”) it’s hard to have a nuanced conversation within the constraints of lyrics. Still, as I pressed play, I wondered if the song would find its way over my low expectations. It did not.

(MORE: Why Prince Triumphed with Gen X)

Brad Paisley’s apology song, dripping with white guilt, is a mea culpa for wearing a symbol of the confederacy — a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. To claim, as Paisley does, that wearing a confederate flag is actually about being a Lynard Skynard fan so we should ignore the dominant meaning, is silly. You can’t wear a swastika and say, “Oh don’t be upset–I’m thinking of the way the Chinese used it before it was appropriated by the Nazis.” That’s not how symbols work. If you choose to walk around wearing a confederate flag tee, instead of one with the words “Lynard Skynard,” then you’ll make some people rightly uncomfortable and wondering how deep your nostalgia goes and how insensitive you are. I have no problem with Southerners being proud of the South, but Paisley does have a lot to learn, as he concedes.

Then there’s LL. His first verse is fine, many of us feel like “new dangled Djangos dodging invisible white hoods,” because racism now often operates in secret. And I’m glad LL stands his ground to say the confederate flag is off-putting. But in the chorus things go astray. First there’s an egregious false comparison: “If you don’t judge my doo rag I won’t judge your red flag.” The flag is a symbol of a time and a place where slavery was legal and may communicate a sentimentality for that time. A doo rag is a piece of clothing that has no inherent symbolism. That some whites are frightened by blacks in doo rags or hoodies or Starter jackets (back when people wore those) doesn’t make them equivalent to the flag of what was once a nation.

But then things go completely off the rails. I wonder if LL was drugged when he wrote and recorded the lyrics, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chain.” How could he have not recognized that as a possibly career-ending moment that would offend almost all of his fans to the core? He follows with other references to amnesia about a multi-century atrocity that still has a deep impact on America. Let bygones be bygones? Slavery is a formative event that led us to the current racial disparities in income inequality and incarceration trends. It’s not excuse-making to recognize the pervasive, continuing impact of slavery. It’s not necessary to speak of slavery every day. But it’s critical to never forget.

MORE: Is Racism An Illness?

I hope to never hear this horrible song again. I’m sure some will walk away from this bizarre episode concluding that white artists are better off not discussing race at all because it can only get them into trouble. That’s not the message people should take. It’s their right to discuss race, but artists must be thoughtful when dealing with this topic or risk hurting the audience. But that’s a message to Brad. My message to LL: You’ve got some explaining to do. I know that both of them say that the song was supposed to be about forgiveness and they are standing by it, but that’s not enough. They may want to consider doing a remix called “Accidental Song” saying how they didn’t mean for “Accidental Racist” to come out, that it was just an accident.

177 comments
torrent
torrent

With every useless (preaching to the choir) article I read that this clown has written, I become more convinced that he is more racist than the supposed  racists he writes about. But then again this is exactly how you make your money isn't it, Mr."Toure"? Just keep stirring those coals, Sir......

Why don't you do something or wright something that inspires one of those poor minorities you speak of to pull themselves up and rise to the level of greatness that they deserve, just as any other youth deserves... no matter what race (or races) you were born into. Your not doing them any favors by writing these pity party speeches you waste your time writing.

DGTCTC
DGTCTC

I once heard a quote, I do not recall the author, that stated that no black person could be racist because to be racist requires power and no blacks have power. This article seems to echo this sentiment. No one has more power over any person than he has over him or herself. I have the power to decide how I think and how I feel. I have the power to take full advantage of opportunities like a public education or sit in the back of the class and text. Nothing racist there. Black or white, rich prep school or inner city powder keg. I also have the ability to let racism continue, passing on the myths that my father taught me, or learn truth from my own relationships with minorities. The author objects to the comparison of the doo rag and the flag because of how HE feels about each. As a white man from the south I have a different viewpoint. The war was 150 years ago. News reports of young black men wearing doo rags committing murder in my small town are frequent. Should Mr. Touré refrain from wearing his doo rag and loose pants because it offends crime victoms? I think not and I think that was the point of the song. We can never heal if we insist on taking offense at every perceived slight. In some, please stop making up my motives for me. If they are a concern to you, just ask what I meant.

eatthelump
eatthelump

One last thing... it's wealth privilege, not white privilege.  Poor whites are treated as badly as minorities in this country.

DivaLoyal1
DivaLoyal1

@TheSwissKim Thank you for posting that great article written by @Toure! He is a brilliantly articulate commentator. I like his style.

VetForumWars
VetForumWars

@TIMEIdeas Time articles being irrelevant is never an accident, it's just that they don't have things like 'integrity', only race-baiting.

jtomko4890
jtomko4890

Can i just make a point, that this guy is a bit of a racist. . .he's bashing a black guy for talking about slavery. and every view point he has about the song is negative because of the south's legacy  

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

While I often disagree with Toure's writing and news commentary, I'm glad he admitted to approaching this issue with, "an open mind." In the following points, I would like to lend my 'open mind' to Toure's writing as well [my comment is broken up into several sections #1-7, due to its length]:

1) In the areas were it's popular, the confederate flag is widely touted, and increasingly acknowledged as a fashion accessory. What Toure does not acknowledge is that as time moves on, so do people. Since the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, more people will 'push the limits' in the present-day. We have seen this with the Dukes of Hazzard and Django Unchained, and will certainly see more as time progresses.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

2) Regarding the swastika issue, the swastika was solely an Asian symbol for peace. Then, the Nazis inverted the design, and made it a symbol for hate. While the Nazis fell almost 70 years ago, the swastika has been portrayed in numerous media productions, and was in fact donned by Prince Harry of England at a college party (ironic, given the English fight against the Nazis). Such events serve as testimony that, again, people will move on as time progresses. Toure has to acknowledge that what was once painful for one generation (i.e. slavery in the Confederate states, Nazism in Europe) will be less so for each passing generation - especially as the personal connections fade away.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

3) I wish that Toure would have elaborated upon the, "the many things that Brad Paisley has to learn."

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

4) "But in the chorus things go astray...there’s an egregious false comparison [by LL]: “If you don’t judge my doo rag I won’t judge your red flag.”"

From my perspective, it sounded as though LL was 'proposing' an agreement to Paisley that the two should not 'judge' each other. To me, it seemed that agreement would apply to how all Whites and Blacks view and interact with each other. Furthermore, implied in the agreement was the notion of forgiveness. Both LL and Paisley are surely aware of the existent racism in society. However, the agreement in the song is meant to symbolize making amends towards a better future.

In all that, I wonder how Toure managed to find an, "egregious false comparison."

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

5) Toure was very likely dismayed by the, "“If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chain” lyrics. Again, what's inherent in the lyrics is the sentiment of forgiveness of one another. Forgiveness is necessary to forging common ground, and building upon that foundation as the years progress. While Toure may be surprised at that implication, that's indeed what, "Letting byones by bygones" is all about. People move on, they forgive, and they work towards a better future. They don't forget about their past, but they won't let it stop them from making meaningful change. I wonder how and why this is so offensive to Toure.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

6) "It’s not necessary to speak of slavery every day. But it’s critical to never forget."

While I agree with Toure's comment, I disagree with the implication that it's always an open wound. We should also never forget about the German-caused Holocaust, the Russian- (then Soviet-) caused pogroms, the Chinese-caused political executions, the Japanese-caused military killings, etc..

Even though those terrible tragedies happened, that does not mean we never made amends with those nations. While we never forgot, we essentially forgave those countries, helped them to rebuild, and now have productive/profitable working relationships with all of them. Why can't Toure acknowledge that we should do similarly with race relations in this country?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

7) Toure expressed hope that he will, "never hear this horrible song again."

Unfortunately, Toure, I suspect that you're in for more similar shocks in the future. I am 25 years old, and have sisters who are 22 and 17 years old. We all have tremendous respect for other races and cultures. Furthermore, as a teacher, my students are 12-18 years old. From my observations, they are actively interacting with an even more diverse crowd than was existent when I was their age. The bottom line is that younger people are moving so far and beyond what they consider the ancient prejudices and biases. Their sentiment gives me hope of a better and brighter future.

Point-in-fact, Toure, if they can move on in such a manner, why can't you?

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

But I like it when people display the confederate flag.  It's only the symbol of the biggest losers in American history.

ss70611
ss70611

What I don't understand is how you can speak out on racism if you are not black, having not experienced what I have or what minorites have, for one the term "miniorites" is just another word to say other than "white" but even if you are a miniorite it does not mean we experience the same kind of racism.

As a black person we face the worst of them all, but for you to never experience racism you can't speak out on a us taking offense on every slight remark, you just can't now i will say there are some who do go overboard on some things but as for most that is not true their is a lot in this world that speaks "racist" but racism is invisible as discrimination, but only as a "minority" or "black" person can you really tell.

And i also beleive yes if you are black and you live in a neighborhood where they wear doo rags and loose pants you SHOULD refrain from it, because that is exactly why black people still have to be the lower race of that of white...if only we could get our crap together then maybe the world would look at us in a diffrent light but we insist on doing what we want and until we can change that there will be no change, just a slight adjustment will do no good for the rest and there will be a countinousness of racisim in our society.

MarchMadness
MarchMadness

@mrbomb13The Civil War may have ended 150 years ago but racism did not. It wasn't until 1954 the Supreme Court  outlawed segregation in public schools. People suffer from racism and oppression every day and it's insulting to insinuate otherwise. BP and LL's song was an ill educated attempt to let bygones be bygones but all it did was prove they have zero sensitivity or self awareness. 

1bubbles2
1bubbles2

What they are trying to promote is historical amnesia. The Confederate Flag not only stands for racism, but for treason. The reverberations from that era are still with us today. African-Americans are still less likely to have access to a good education and good jobs. And the South still hates the federal government because the feds enforce Civil Rights. I think the biggest challenge for young people is to learn about history.   

1bubbles2
1bubbles2

The problem is that you assume that there is a historical equivalence between black and white. What do blacks need to be forgiven for? Nothing. Their plight is a direct result of slavery and racism, so the premise of the whole song is false. The way to move on is by reversing the econmic damage done by slavery.  

1bubbles2
1bubbles2

Re: We helped them rebuild."

Bingo! We have never made any economic restittuion for slavery.

1bubbles2
1bubbles2

If you're really a teacher, then you desperately need to learn about history. I fear for the younger generation. Your schools were decimated by NCLB, Race to the Top, and soon Common Core. We will have a whole generation who cannot make meaningful connections between past and present.

beauzaq1
beauzaq1

@yaynative @fcsfinest1 @stephcasher @Toure please point out to us all what in your mind toure said is racist... just saying toure is a racist doesnt mean he is a racist... love to see some proof but i guarantee you wont be able to supply it...

fcsfinest1
fcsfinest1

@yaynative - Race is a sensitive subject and if you are going to make a song about the subject do it right. I heard more harm than good.

fcsfinest1
fcsfinest1

@yaynative - I found song to be regrettable. Felt it marginalized the significance of historical events with modern analogies. Disappointed.

beauzaq1
beauzaq1

@yaynative @fcsfinest1 @stephcasher @Toure wow, you actually get from that toure is a racist... america needs new parents and schools... but hey, i love the way this controversy is making idiots out themselves...  :-)

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

First, thanks for your reply.  Just a few comments:

1) Promoting "historical amnesia?"  I would be more tempted to say, "mass marketable/profitable entertainment value."  Neither the TV show or movie claimed to be a work of non-fiction; both are blatantly fictional tales.

2) We have to be careful when discussing the lingering "reverberations" of the Civil War era.  The largest reverberations are the right of Blacks to vote, and the nationwide abolishment of slavery.  Since then, the law has mandated that all American students - regardless of skin color - receive a "fair and appropriate education."  So, technically, access to public education is equal for all.  Additionally, 1970s affirmative action programs mandate diversity in the workforce, so Blacks have much better employment opportunities.

3) Do you have any proof that, "the South still hates the federal government because the feds enforce Civil Rights?"

4) I agree that the biggest challenge for young people is to both learn and appreciate the lessons of history.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Again, your reply is very much appreciated.  If I may offer a few comments,

1) I assume no historical equivalency between Blacks and Whites. 

2) Since the majority of U.S. gang-related crime is committed by Blacks/other minorities, they need to be forgiven for those acts.  Ancient slavery (which ended over 150 years ago) and racism is no excuse for committing a crime for any reason.

3) Technically, slavery helped the U.S. economy by providing a cheap source of labor to produce goods.  Once slavery ended, manufacturing/mass-production methods were needed to compensate for that lost labor source.  Many Blacks ended up working in those manufacturing jobs, because of the lower-skilled requirements.  When much manufacturing left this country, Blacks did not have additional skills to fall back on.  Therefore, it was that shift (and not slavery) that disproportionally affected Blacks.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

While that's true, neither has any other country wherein slavery existed.  Not a cent in reparations has been paid to those who had ancestors in the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Such a bill would be astronomical in size, and economically infeasible. 

Instead, what's needed are job training programs, and a return of manufacturing to America.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

While I appreciate your reply, please answer the following questions in detail:

1) What makes you say that I, "desperately need to learn about history?"  Please remember, I'm a Social Studies/History teacher.

2) Why do you fear for our generation?

3) How were my, "schools were decimated by NCLB, Race to the Top, and soon Common Core?"

4) "We will have a whole generation who cannot make meaningful connections between past and present."  Please elaborate on that statement.

yaynative
yaynative

@fcsfinest1 The country need not be sensitive. We need to yell it out then move on. real change though can be seen in our children

yaynative
yaynative

@fcsfinest1 the song is horrible, but their intent is obvious even without them being able to articulate it.

fcsfinest1
fcsfinest1

@yaynative - Your sarcasm occasionally goes over my head. Must be the Bay bred East Coast dichotomy.

yaynative
yaynative

@fcsfinest1 are you calling me a chicken or an egg? lol.... I'm food drunk right now.

beauzaq1
beauzaq1

@yaynative @fcsfinest1 lol... you say you need not be sensitive while calling toure a racist... epic...

fcsfinest1
fcsfinest1

@yaynative - Agreed about our children. I've been encouraged by the racial discourse in our country of late. That song tho is a step back.

fcsfinest1
fcsfinest1

@yaynative - I didn't think it was malicious, more disappointed that two accomplished artists couldn't make a better/ more effective effort.