The Lowdown on Accidental Racism

English: American country musician Brad Paisley.

The sensational buzz around country star Brad Paisley‘s song “Accidental Racist” is perfect fodder for a Twitter blurb- but is this the extent of racial analysis we can muster in America?  If someone stops reading this article at the first sentence, I feel like this provides a more appropriate response than the shallow condemnations filling the airwaves.  First for some caveats, because I respect that our own experiences fuel our opinions:

I am a man from the North who lives in the South (less than two years) who can’t trace his lineage back into the 1800’s at all.  I forgot everything taught to me in school and replaced it with over a decade of independent research on a variety of topics, especially history.  I learned my deepest lessons on race relations from close affiliations with multiple self-acclaimed racists of various colors and intensities; I learned it in prison.  Since my release I have been in an anti-racist social justice community that strives to confront racism and find pathways beyond this beast.

Now back to the song:  I don’t find it particularly good, on its artistic merits.  I don’t listen to much Country, so I suspect many non-Country fans will be instantly turned off simply by the sound of it.  Similarly, I don’t think I can take another Lil’ Wayne song which basically sounds like he was in the studio smoking weed with some strippers and someone left the mic on.  But when I say Mos Def, Immortal Technique, Rage Against the Machine, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and the Grateful Dead are among my all-time favorite bands, its clear that the genre isn’t my problem.  “Accidental Racist” isn’t very poetic nor musically dynamic.

But I like this song.  The courage of both Paisley and LL Cool J is admirable.  Surely some agent or other was telling them “Nooooo!!!!!”  Paisley probably doesn’t know this, but the most common theme among People of Color, when discussing racism, is that White people need to go back and educate their White families, colleagues, and neighbors about racism.  I imagine that only certain radio stations are going to play this song, and a certain demographic will buy this album- the same demographic that White anti-racists are called upon to reach.

It is not easy to get an anti-racist message out to mainstream America, particularly one which is digestible to the group you want to change.  A documentary on the horrors of imprisoning families suspected of migrating to America without government permission, one which condemns racist statements of various actors, may win a human rights film festival and be seen by every activist I know… yet not enlighten a single person with racist tendencies (be they subconscious or overt).  So how do we reach them?

A message has to be heard to be effective.  One that merely reinforces what you already believe is of little use except where it helps to clarify your thoughts and elevates your understanding.  To get people to examine their own beliefs, the message (and the messenger) needs to meet you where you’re at.

In the social justice policy sphere, we recognize that there are not enough true believers in equality and caring about the least fortunate.  So we spend a lot of energy trying to convince Conservatives and “Tough On Crime” Liberals that they should change course.  The most popular tactic lately has been the finances: it costs a lot of money to patrol, arrest, and incarcerate millions of Black, Latino, and poor White people.  The reality is, the approach is to speak in terms they can understand.

If I can get you to the table, we have a chance of building a conversation and learning what your needs and fears are.  If I can get everyone on the spectrum to just move a little bit in the direction I’m headed, then each movement is a victory.  A Liberal wakes up and realizes the Drug War needs to stop; a Moderate becomes outspoken against the racist undertones of Voter ID and drug testing TANF recipients; a Conservative decides to not oppose a decision to close a local jail; a Klan member stops going to secret rallies…  Its all about moving people a little bit.

“To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view”
The Hook:

“I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin”

LL Cool J:
“Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here”

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can re-write history
(Can’t re-write history baby)

Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)
I’m a son of the new south
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth”

Could Paisley have left the Confederate flag out of the song?  Perhaps, but he would have been evading the most prominent symbol of racism.  A swastika is universally condemned, yet the Stars and Bars fly freely around this country.  But what the singer suggests, to me, is that symbols mean different things to different people.  Many viewers see the flag and basically equate the one displaying it to a Klan member.  Those flying it, however, may be Southerners at various points of a spectrum on racial views.  It is doubtful that a lecture from Obama, or even a Congressional law banning it, will change many attitudes.

LL’s line about forgetting the iron chains is a tough line.  Some people would like to forget and move on, while others still think there needs to be closure- with Reparations being required.  Considering there were roughly 40 million Americans in 1870, yet over 50 million have immigrated since then, it is obviously difficult to allocate slavery reparations to actual descendants.  I believe the money could be spent on housing and education among low income People of Color, a systemic investment (in the same way the American system protected and enabled slavery).

Either way, it is difficult to have a fresh dialogue without putting aside, even for a moment, the sins and sufferings of the forefathers.  What is perhaps most relevant is identifying the unbroken timeline between slavery and today, regarding America’s laws and attitudes.  And if this were solely a Southern problem, laid at the feet of Southern men who have become the face of repression… this ignores the situation in all parts of the nation.  History is full of selective amnesia, and there is plenty of blame to go around for past and present oppression.

Robert E. Lee is not labeled a “traitor” in American history.  After the war, he became the president of a university and is highly regarded by the U.S. military for his tactical ability.  Statues of him are aplenty.  He more than likely (along with many slaveowners bankrolling the Rebellion) passed along considerable wealth to his children.  His lionization and acceptance is, dare I say, similar to hating Al Qaeda while appreciating Osama bin Laden’s leadership skills.

The inability to properly condemn the leaders of the Confederacy, while blaming the rank and file soldier, is consistent with a structure where the poor are always manipulated to fight the rich man’s war.  People in the South died by the hundreds of thousands.  They overwhelmingly died in the South believing their lands were under attack.  In the past century, the same could be said about Iraqis, Vietnamese, Germans, and so many more.  People need to be allowed to honor their dead, in their own ways.

I am far from an apologist for racism, yet I recognize that we live in a nation where local leaders and institutions surround young people with many remnants of the Rebellion.  History has not eliminated it- I go past Lee Circle and Jeff Davis Boulevard all the time, among other names such as Jackson, MLK, and Simon Bolivar.

I have had cellmates from the North and South, I have lived in a box with members and leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, Hell’s Angels, Five Percenters, and Latin Kings, among others.  Many of them never heard a guy like me speak before, and I likely would have dismissed their views without any critical discussion until we were forced into the situation.

I’ve seen opposed racists play sports together, work out together, and actually moderate their expressions over time.  One Neo-Nazi tried to shred his knuckle tattoos off with steel wool, because he didn’t hate people as much as when he was a kid getting beat up by others who looked different than him.

With the movie “42” coming out in a week, people might approach that movie knowing Jackie Robinson did not cast a magical spell over America that Black athletes were good people.  Similarly, Jesse Owens returned to a racist and segregated America, flag in hand, after showing up the Nazis.  Even Abe Lincoln did not think too highly of those families he freed; he merely saw it as pragmatic.  The point is: we reach people where they are at, and just try to move them a little bit.

The Anti-Haters need to stop the hate.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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