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Accidental Racism

The Brad Paisley/LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist” is one of the more amusing things to come into my life in recent times. It’s like a spiritual cousin of Gob and Franklin’s “It Ain’t Easy Being White…” I can’t get the comparison out of my head and anything that reminds me of Arrested Development is always appreciated. The comparison is apt. Both are coming from a genuine, well-meaning place while at the same time displaying a comical level of ignorance (I realize one is fictional, but in the context of the show…).

The basic premise of Accidental Racist is Paisley's response to a black Starbucks barista who was upset about the swastik-- I mean Confederate flag on Paisley’s shirt. Paisley then details the conflicting feelings he has between his southern pride and the turbulent history of the south. And then LL comes in and makes him sound like a Rhodes scholar. I’ll get to that.

I’m not going to pile on Paisley here. I am genuinely happy he stepped forward, not (just) so I can make fun of him, but because I really believe his heart is in the right place. It takes balls to very publically ask questions that put your ignorance on display, especially given the volitile nature of the subject matter. When the intent of asking is to try and work through and overcome that ignorance, I think that needs to be applauded. How many Confederate flag sporting rednecks think it even warrants a discussion? It’s an attitude that needs to be confronted and Paisley has just given us the opening.

Some of the response to the song has been typical. For example, you can’t find a video of it on-line anymore because in the U.S., a person’s need to have their knee-jerk outrage forced on everyone else is more important than the first amendment. There’s really nothing intentionally malicious in this song. It just happens to deal with race relations and we can’t have grown up discussions about that anymore.

Despite the video’s removal, I’ve been very pleased to find that much of the response has been free of the kind of outrage we usually find. Sure, people have been vocal, giving very thorough rundowns as to where Paisley is severely lacking in his knowledge about the flag and his attitude, but it’s more on the side of a ribbing than a flaying.  I have yet to find an analysis as thorough and amusing as the one at Rap Genius. I highly recommend giving it a read.

One of my favorite points they make is the oddness in the choice of LL Cool J. Hip Hop is a genre with an extensive history dealing in issues of race and racism and a wealth of artists who have been prolific on the subject. LL Cool J has never been one of them. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking LL. He has an impressive catalog to choose from. It's just social issues have never been his forte and his verse bares this out with a rather narrow, one-dimensional understanding of race issues. I’m not saying he couldn’t expound at length and with great insight on the subject. I’m saying there is no evidence of that happening based on this song. Perhaps more upsetting is the quality of his rhymes. He did a commercial in the 90’s for Nike or some crap where he improvised on the spot. That now sounds like Illmatic when compared to this.

My point is that LL’s (or J’s?) presence here seems like a gimmick or a stunt at best. Conciliatory at worst. This song would be catching far more hell if there was no black response on it and LL is unquestionably a safe choice. I also realize I’m being picky but come on. LL equates durags with a flag that represented a people who waged war against their own country to protect their right to own his ancestors. I’m glad he’s willing to forget about slavery if the people who fly the flag that represented those who killed to protect it are simply willing to overlook his gold chains and baggy pants. What about the millions upon millions of black people who don’t wear gold chains and baggy pants? Is he also speaking for them? How about mentioning even just one problem that affects more than just a stereotype? I can’t help thinking how an Ice Cube or a Common might have brought some much needed authenticity to the proceedings. Then again, it would have just clashed with the narrow stereotypes of southerners that surround it.

I’ll take the time to point out here, because it seems as good a time as any, that the south is full of people who find the “Red” flag to be despicable. It’s just the rednecks that don’t. If you find the term “redneck” offensive, great. I find the Confederate flag offensive. Stop displaying and embracing it and I’ll stop calling you a redneck.

In the end, all Paisley wanted to do was start a dialogue and he’s been successful. He wanted to address an animosity he’s felt toward a viewpoint held not just by him but by many southerners. He wanted to ask why that animosity exists. I can’t stress enough how we need more of that in this country. I’ve said in the past, I just want people to be honest about how they feel, even if it might offend others. We can’t challenge the ignorant ideas that cause hatred if the people holding them deny their existence in the first place.

Brad, you asked the question and people all over the Internet have graciously responded. Now your part of this deal is to listen to what they had to say. You can take your pick of the many articulate and thorough explanations of just why the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism to a majority of the people in this country. To summarize, it’s because we associate it with the people who went to war to protect their right to own other people. They felt so strongly about it that they waged war against The United States. I’ve heard the rationale that it was more complicated than that. There were economic needs in the south and slavery was a key component to keeping the southern economy moving. But that argument rests on an idea that it was less desirable to work towards finding a way to survive that doesn’t require treating human beings as property than spilling the blood of your countrymen.

To wear the red flag in good conscience requires ignorance of history. You have to ignore words such as these:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition”

That’s Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate provisional government, explaining just one of the many ways the Confederate Constitution differs from the U.S. Constitution. Read the whole speech here. Maybe not all people of the Confederacy felt this way but then again, not all Germans in WWII Germany were Nazis. Yet they stood by, knowing an insane evil was being committed and they bear the guilt of that to this day.

Yes. You, Brad Paisley, are not responsible for what happened during the Civil War and the turbulent times that have followed since, just as Germans today are not responsible for what happened in WWII. The difference is, you will never in a million years, catch any German, aside from a Neo-Nazi skinhead, sporting a swastika. The comparison is not out of line in any way. You may not like it but choosing to disagree with it requires you to be willfully ignorant of the Confederate flag’s history. That doesn’t just apply to the Civil War. It applies to its use as a symbol throughout the Civil Rights movement by people who continued to violently stand in the way of equality for people based on skin color. It also shouldn’t come as a shock that it’s popular among white supremacists to this day. Both the swastika and the Confederate flag are symbols of people whose beliefs lead to ungodly atrocities. You can’t change the meaning of the one anymore than you can change the meaning of the other.

I realize the people of the south are very proud of their heritage. No one's saying you shouldn't be. What I don't get is why, if you're so proud of it, you would want to display a symbol that represents it at it's absolute worst. If you really need a symbol to get behind there's a perfectly good alternative.

This one

So now you know. Thank you for asking. It’s a free country and you are free to express yourself anyway you want. You can continue to wear the Confederate flag proudly. Just know that it’s no longer accidental racism if you do.