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.

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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.

193 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.

LanceSjogren
LanceSjogren

I can see why nobody reads Time magazine anymore.

shara_says1
shara_says1

From reading the article and comments, it sounds like one of the major divisions in the discussion involves WHAT RACISM MEANS.  People who define racism differently from each other are having completely separate conversations, which is frustrating for all sides.  

School of Thought #1: Racism means what dictionary.com says it means, which can be summarized as discrimination or hatred or prejudiced thoughts/actions against someone because of the color of their skin, and this can take place on an individual or a systems level.  According to this school of thought, anyone can be a racist, whatever race they are. 

School of Thought #2: Racism is a process by which one group has more power or exercises more power over another because of the color of their skin.  This school of thought posits that our culture has been permeated by white racism, which involves white privilege as a result of systematic oppression of minorities throughout our history.  According to this school of thought, only people who are a member of the group with more power can be racist, because they (consciously or unconsciously) benefit from and perpetuate the model of white privilege.  According to this school of thought, people who follow School of Thought #1 are using "racism" incorrectly, when they should be using "bigot" instead.

I don't know a lot about race theory myself, so that is probably a gross oversimplification, but that is the division that I am seeing in this discussion, as well as in pretty much every other discussion about race that I've ever heard.  I don't see us having an honest, civil discussion about racism, privilege, and bigotry as long as we are stuck on the semantics. I see merits in both schools of thought.  I thought it was extremely arrogant of the author to say "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."  Obviously, the song was operating under the other common definition of racism (I did an action that I did not intend to be racially offensive, and I offended people without meaning to and am trying to learn so we can all move on and do better), and the author here is smart and well-educated enough that I can't help but think that he is purposefully, disingenuously, misunderstanding the intent, rather than engaging in actual dialogue.  He says he hopes that such criticisms don't provide a chilling effect making white people afraid to discuss race issues, but if he refuses to even acknowledge that most people in the country have a very different definition of "racism" than that is exactly what he is doing.  People don't always know how to have conversations on someone else's terms.  There has to be a starting point somewhere, there has to be some flexibility in how the issues and challenges are framed, and there has to be some space for well-intentioned people to be awkward about it at first. 

beauzaq1
beauzaq1

I am surprised that no one has commented on the illiteracy of the artists.  It is quite obvious that they meant no harm with the song.  Their take on it doesn't sound like excuses.  That being the case, the only thing you can say is they are unable to make a cogent thought on racism and that was the best of their ability to create a song about it.

Don't get me wrong, we all know "not cool j's" career as a rap artist has been over for quite a while.  LL decided to create a controversy to sell some records, but the unfortunate part of it is he only made his catalog worth less with the accidental piece of tripe.  

People like myself who were hardcore LL fans tried to forgive him for selling out to the Republican party long ago.  Now he has forever ingrained himself as the Herman Cain of Hiphop.  To say the least it is quite disgusting.  When I hear Bad, Radio, or Boomin System, I no longer think of a charismatic rapper full of energy stalking the stage as one of the greatest entertainers in rap.  What I will think from here on out is a guy who never really cared about his legacy in the game of rap, just some dude who like many would do anything for money.

What momma really should've told LL was not to sell out.

bozak

-JasonSutton
-JasonSutton

Dude, if you are going to talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd... you need to have the decency to spell it correctly. You just pissed off most of the south because of your misspelling ;-)

LiberalLadyTalk
LiberalLadyTalk

I find the comments here unbelievable, and the very reason we need people like Toure' to call out stupidity when he sees it.  Totally clueless posts.  Sheesh!

subframer
subframer

toure is a joke to anyone outside of the progressive bubble.  this two bit racist and con artist can only attract an audience of the rabid via his ludicrous, faux intellectualized racist bile.  MSNBC continues to define the lower limit of journalistic ethic and professionalism.  in fact, calling them journalists at all is wholly inaccurate.

rhendrickson
rhendrickson

Toures are definitely not accidental racists.  They train in anti-white ranting and vile exclusionism from an early age.  This particular Toure published explicitly racist, KKK-level material non-stop just ten years ago.  And now he is flinging filth at others, huh?

bañez
bañez

The confederate flag was not merely a symbol of slavery, but of a particular culture and legal order.  To reduce that culture and that legal order to slavery is sheer stupidity.  By contrast, certain clothing articles associated with a sociological group of gangsters whose criminal statistics are off the charts will naturally come to be viewed through the prism of the murders and thefts and rapes and drug use of the group in question.  When will people finally admit that the rampant black on white crime is racist? And that the accidentals surrounding the gangsters are noted by their prospective "prey" in the effort to survive?  Instead, we get stupidity about "profiling"...

XwarnermX
XwarnermX

Toure Neblett is one of the biggest racists on cable news. Every day on his program on MSNBC he spews out ignorant, racist tripe and of course none of his sycophantic co-hosts dare call him out on it. 

geoffrobinson1
geoffrobinson1

"racism is the exercise of power"

B.s. that comes straight out of the sociology departments of universities. Racism is believing that a particular race is inherently inferior or superior to another race.

AlexShydler
AlexShydler

Nothing wrong with the Confederate flag. Slavery was wrong but comparing it to the Holocaust is stupid. Fasces have decorated the walls of the House of Representatives for 70 years now and they were the "flag" of classical Rome. And the slavery practiced by the Romans was far worse than that practiced by the American South (Gladiator games, MINE slaves, and Latifunda slavery was far worse than the plantation variety, since they didn't even care about "long term" servitude). The eagle was another Roman symbol we use, in addition to our structure of state. The Confederate flag is just a representation of a state. People wear it because of regional pride in the skill and sacrifice of their ancestors involved in that struggle. The comparison isn't between the Confederate flag and the swastika, then, its a comparison between the Confederate flag and the Iron Cross. Also, comparing slavery to the Holocaust is grostesque and narcissistic.