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.

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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.