Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist,” was it racist or a good-faith effort?

Brad Paisley’s new duet with rapper LL Cool J, called “Accidental Racist, is about the issue of race in America from the perspective of a southerner who doesn’t believe in racism, but also feels that he’s sometimes blamed for the sins of his fathers.

Perhaps it’s poetic justice, or simply an indication of where we are in this country on race (or really any controversial topic), that a song about troubled race relations seems to have troubled race relations.

A number of people have criticized the song for everything from its supposedly clumsy lyrics, to its possible suggestion that racism is all in the past, to even Brad Paisley’s selection of LL Cool J to do the duet – one writer called that selection by itself racist.

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley

There was a hearty discussion about this in the comments to the post – one that was somewhat more heated than our discussion about why the women’s rights movement isn’t advancing of late.  And I also received an interesting email from someone from Georgia.  I asked him to expand on his email a bit, and he did.  I think it’s worth a read, especially in light of some of the criticism that claimed Paisley was just another southern racist.  It’s at the end of this post.

But first, a few of the comments that readers left alongside the post:

None of my relatives flew the rebel flag

Ron Robertson: I was born in the south, and virtually everyone in my background was born in the south, or lived there most of their lives. Not a single one of us ever flew the rebel flag. Yes, some of my relatives were racist, but not many. My grandmother, who was born poor in Mississippi always admired black people, and would recall to us how much she liked playing with them as a little girl, and loved to hear elderly black people talk (she said they’re so wise). I’m personally sick of all the bigotry, racism and homophobia in the south (and elsewhere), but I’m still not going to tar everyone as some rebel-flag-flying idiot. It doesn’t solve anything.

“Brad Paisley is my enemy for intentionally trying to distort history and spread racist propaganda”

Nik Marina: When desegregation was happening, Southerners flew the rebel flag in protest. They changed their state flags to include the rebel flag just to shout loudly to the world that they loved racism. And that’s not something that happened in the distant past. That’s something that happened in living memory. That flag is a flag of racism and fire hoses and lynchings. And those Southerners who made a conscious decision to associate the flag with racism are the ones to blame for it. I’m sick of hearing people whine about that flag. Every time they wave it, the spit in the face of people who had to fight for basic rights under our constitution. Brad Paisley isn’t an accidental racist. He’s an intentional one. And frankly, your defense of this song is utterly disgusting.

Paisley is my enemy for intentionally trying to distort history and spread racist propaganda. And no, I don’t accept the idea that any adult is innocently wearing the flag (unless they have developmental issues or just arrived in the country or something like that). Pretty much everyone in this country takes American history in school and learns about the civil war and slavery. The people flying the flag know full-well what it’s tied to racism and slavery. Paisley is blatantly trying to omit that history.

Shame on you for trying to carry water for that racist.

“Something can be a symbol of oppression to one group and a symbol of pride to another.”

Eve Wartenberg Condon: I’m Jewish and was raised to believe that the Jews have exclusive rights to Palestine; it was literally all I was taught, day in and day out, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of this, I carried this belief into my 20’s until I had the opportunity to learn the other side of the issue–I had never had any exposure to a different perspective. You could say that the Israeli flag is to Palestinians what the Confederate flag is to African-Americans, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of regular people–not galloping racists, not willfully ignorant folks with hearts full of hate–see the Israeli flag as a sign of pride in their culture and religion. Something can be a symbol of oppression to one group and a symbol of pride to another. It doesn’t mean we should roll over and accept racism, but it does mean we won’t get anywhere with reductionism and anger. This is not a black-or-white issue, and it will not be resolved without meaningful dialogue.

“Yet another straight white dude whining about how hard it is to be a straight white dude”

RustyKC: The first problem I saw was that we have yet another straight white dude whining about how hard it is to be a straight white dude. The poor guy has to think about what he says and does, and has to deal with the consequences of his choices. The horror! I mean, who else in society ever has to do that?

If we all just realized how unreasonable we’re being that he can’t do or say anything he wants with no consequences, I think we’d all be a lot better off! For sure, he (and all the rest of the straight white dudes out there) would sure feel more comfortable.

“Brad Paisley is just a good looking redneck who can sing”

Hoplite I: Paisley is just a good looking redneck who can sing = country music star. He’s not running the conservative movement. He’s preaching to a wing of that movement. One that happens to buy his records and make him millions of dollars in the process. But that movement must be defined accurately. And since the confederate crowd is a big part of their movement it’s critical we brand it as it is. It’s our only chance. We don’t have the money, we don’t have the media, and we don’t have the luxury of letting them off the hook because sweet tea or biscuits.

“You are assuming everyone in the south, including Brad Paisley, is a redneck racist”

Ron Robertson: Are you being excessively tribalistic? Looking at what you wrote it seems you are assuming everyone in the south, including Paisley is a redneck racist. It is a poor idea to assume you know something about a person just because of their race or where they were born. There are some people who need to be knocked in the head (leaders of the Catholic church, everyone in NOM, etc.), but others are not vested in doing wrong (like Paisley), but are doing what they can to understand things better. Were you born knowing everything you do now? Some people learn early, some later, but they aren’t rotten racists because they haven’t learned everything already. Is your goal to improve the world we live in, or is it only to punish transgressions? Are you perfect? A little more understanding and genuine humanity can accomplish more with most people.

And here is the longer response from reader Josh Sewell of Carrollton, Georgia, filling in a little more background about Brad Paisley and his music:

I wanted to reach out regarding Mr. Aravosis’ story on the new Brad Paisley song. Though I’m not a big country fan, I enjoy Paisley’s work because he’s usually an extraordinarily talented songwriter and musician. Though “Accidental Racist” is ultimately clumsy and unsuccessful, I give him credit for the attempt.

Keep in mind the song isn’t completely autobiographical. He’s singing from the perspective of the character – namely, a guy who represents his target demographic. Without preaching, he’s explaining to a certain segment of his audience why they need to consider other people’s perceptions when defending problematic aspects of their heritage (e.g., the Confederate flag).

Again, I’m not saying he pulls it off; both Paisley’s lyrics and LL Cool J’s rap are extremely problematic. But, believe it or not, he’s still one of the most progressive voices in mainstream country music. Those unfamiliar with his work wouldn’t know how he regularly calls out the genre’s BS in his other work.

Paisley explores these ideas a bit more successfully in a song like “American Saturday Night,” where he sings about people partying on an “American” Saturday night by wearing Brazilian leather boots and getting into a German car to go eat pizza or drink Coronas (a wink to how the nation really is a melting pot, and we’re far more “international” than we realize). Or a song like “Southern Comfort Zone,” which discusses how Southerners can be small-minded, and how they need to experience the rest of the world. It’s especially interesting how he plays on the old, controversial lyric “look away, Dixie Land.”

But where Paisley’s progressive streak really shows is in his song “Welcome to the Future,” which came out in late 2008-early 2009. The first couple of verses lull the listener into a false sense of security. He talks about how he used to beg his parents to drive him to the arcade to play Pac-Man, but now he’s got it on his phone. He mentions that his grandfather fought the Japanese in World War II, but now our countries are allies.

Then comes the final verse:

I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home coming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Hey, wake up Martin Luther
Welcome to the future
Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah
Welcome to the future

He’s singing about Obama’s inauguration. In a hit country song, that got massive radio airplay. And nobody boycotted or called him a communist — in other words, he didn’t get Dixie Chick’d. That’s amazing to me. What’s more, he performed the song for the President and First Lady at the White House shortly after the 2009 inauguration. I don’t think I can name another mainstream country artist who would put his or her career on the line by doing that.

That’s why I still respect Paisley and enjoy his music, despite his major misstep with “Accidental Racist.” If you take his previous songs into consideration, it’s a little easier to see that this is an example of noble intentions but bad execution.

Hate on him all you want, but he’s an artist who is attempting to teach his audience about race and intolerance in a non-preachy entertaining way.  And that’s something we should all welcome.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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