“Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so.  He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan.  Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”

This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument.  Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.”  Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries.  And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?

And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters.  He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.  Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”

Take a listen.

The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.”  No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.


18 thoughts on ““Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

  1. Where to begin? “He’s drifted a long way from ‘Mama Said Knock You Out,’ which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.” Nice!

    When this whole fiasco began, I instantly felt like maybe people were erupting into a paroxysm of self-righteous indignation about a guy who was trying (however awkwardly) to broach an issue that almost nobody (certainly not white country musicians) wants to talk about or address. But then I made myself listen to the song. Oh boy. It seemed encouraging when he said,

    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

    As if he had something to learn and felt some regret or complicity in what “we’ve done.” But then there’s the “but.” Racism is actually about how “white folks are still paying for the mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came” (racism is really about the unfair burden borne by white people), and if it’s about anything else, it’s just about gold chains and cowboy hats, generalizations and unwarranted assumptions based on clothing choices. Let’s “let bygones by bygones!” He seems to begin to express some sheepish guilt or desire to understand a different perspective, but then he immediately retreats to the position that there’s nothing really wrong and I as a white guy am the real victim here…

    I have to say, in spite of Paisley’s well-meaning cluelessness, I think LL’s participation is even more baffling and insane. “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” Seriously?

    • Alex, thanks for the additional analysis of what’s going on here, especially the part about how “racism is really about the unfair burden borne by white people.” Spot on.

  2. “And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?”

    Most people misunderstand West Virginia history. Most of West Virginia consists of counties that supported Virginia’s secession from the United States and supported the Confederacy. From central West Virginia, up the eastern panhandle, and most of southern and southwestern West Virginia, all these counties supported the Confederacy. The state was created by a minority Unionist government against the wishes of most West Virginians. And though Paisely is from Wheeling, one of the most prominent companies of Stonewall Jackson’s Brigade was the Shriver Grays, from Wheeling.

    • Paisley is from Glen Dale, WV, which is in the northernmost neck of the state near Ohio. I imagine we could split hairs over Union vs. Confederate sentiment in the state, but I don’t consider the work of the Wheeling Convention to be a minority decision.

      • The Wheeling Convention never had more than 28,000 of the 70,000 voters in West Virginia, that is a minority by any standard. The Wheeling state Constitution was trashed by West Virginia voters once full voting rights were restored in 1871. West Virginia was the first state to elect an ex-Confederate to the governorship and an ex-Confederate to the US Senate in 1876. Historians have twisted the history in order to validate what the Wheeling Convention did. They never, ever, had the support of most West Virginians. And even further north than Wheeling, the town of Bethany, Brooke County, voted to secede from the United States on May 23, 1861.

      • Clearly, you want to get in a tit for tat over whether West Virginia was Confederate or not. I think there is clear agreement that it was some of both. And in areas closer to northern states like Glen Dale, near Ohio, one could find considerable Union sentiment. I also know, for a fact, that in my study of the United Daughters of the Confederacy they often complained about the lack of support for the organization in West Virginia, which suggests that it had never been a hotbed of the Confederacy. Lastly, I find it interesting that out of the entire blog what you chose to focus on was the small bit about West Virginia, ignoring the point of the blog, which was about a lack of understanding of the much broader history of slavery, racism, and Confederate iconography. If you want to get into discussions over points of Civil War minutiae, I recommend you go to a Civil War blog.

      • I’m sorry you didn’t care for my history lesson re: Mr. Paisley’s southern credentials, which everyone seems to be attacking, but I thought it very pertinent. I don’t consider the history of West Virginia to be “minutiae”, it has taken up years of my life and I know it well. But another aspect of Mr. Paisley’s heritage, southern or not, is the history of slavery in his home state. Over the past 5 years I have watched with amusement as the pundits try to understand West Virginia and Obama, with the less amusing result of West Virginians derided as racists. Once again the history has been twisted to serve as a prop for statehood. The institution of slavery was an essential part of western Virginia life, though it was small compared to eastern Virginia. Dr. Wilma Dunaway’s “Slavery in the American Mountain South” shows how important slavery was to the West Virginia economy. Plantations spanned the Ohio River from Wheeling to the Kentucky border and West Virginians were very aggressive in fighting Ohio and Pennsylvania abolitionists. In 2008 a West Virginia bureaucrat wrote to the publication “State Legislatures” complaining that West Virginia had no need to apologize for slavery because there was no slavery. That is how badly our history is understood.

        Henry Louis Gates has written extensive memoirs of his life growing up in West Virginia, even calling one section of his PBS series “Growing up under Jim Crow in Piedmont, West Virginia and Chattanooga, Tennessee”. West Virginia was part of the first wave of Klan activity just after the Civil War, and had a number of Jim Crow laws, though they were hardly necessary from the perspective of white rule in the state.

        I haven’t read your book “Dixie’s Daughters”, though it seems something that would interest me. But from the way you phrased your reply it sounded to me like you have never actually talked to any of the UDC members in WV. All I know about the WV UDC is that they have raised about 20 Confederate memorials and monuments in the state, and the Southern Cross Chapter in Fayette County just recently awarded a scholarship.

  3. Just like not all black men wear chains and act ghetto, doesn’t mean that all southerns are ignorant rednecks. I think this is a great song to open up a taboo subject.

  4. I’ve been watching this comment thread with great interest. People have very strong feelings on this subject!

    Karen, as an historian and a Southerner, what are your thoughts on how a Southern white man “should,” ideally, see himself and his place in the world in 2013? Obviously, feeling guilty for deeds done by his ancestors 150+ years ago is counterproductive and unnecessary because none of us should be forced to bear the burdens of our grandfathers (yes?). On the other hand, being “proud” of his race and his heritage is now synonymous with hatred and bigotry. All other groups, including Blacks, Indians, women, and gays, can be “proud” of who they are simply by virtue of birth, but white men, in our society at this time, cannot be (at least not publicly) without risking enormous censure. I say this just as an observation.

    What are your thoughts on white pride — is there any place for it whatsoever in today’s world, or is always automatically synonymous with racism no matter what anyone says he feels to the contrary? If a white Southern man cannot (or should not) feel “pride” in his race or his homeland or his “heritage,” how could or should he feel instead?

    Also, what do you think should be done with the Confederate flag? Should it be banned outright forever and everywhere, or does it have an appropriate use in any context? I’m asking out of genuine curiosity, as a Westerner with “no dog in this fight,” as they say.

    • Lisa, I think this blog post does a good job of addressing some of your questions: http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/why-white-southerners-are-the-true-victims-of-racism/ As for the Confederate battle flag (there are many others, of course) the most appropriate context for one is in a museum setting where it can be discussed with some historical context and education about its uses over time. I wish I could post more, but spring is the busiest time of year for professors it seems.

      • Well … I wasn’t really looking for further exegesis of that song or the “controversy” around it, and it matters not all to me where Brad Paisley is from or what his state’s role was in the Civil War. I’m really interested in knowing what you think about the white male Southern pride thing.

        > If a white Southern man cannot (or should not) feel “pride” in his race or his homeland or his “heritage,” how could or should he feel instead?

        The song says those men are “caught between southern pride and southern blame.” Is there any middle ground? Can there be any reconciliation between the two?

        I realize these are large questions and that your time is limited. But I am, nevertheless, interested in what you think about them. That’s why I read your blog. 🙂

      • Here’s what I think: white male southern pride does not have to be expressed ONLY with the Confederate battle flag. This is essentially how this song begins. About wearing a shirt with a Confederate battle flag on it. As I said in my original post “why this symbol?” I am proud to be from the South, but it’s about people, food, humor, storytelling, accents, etc. In other words, Paisley and others are limiting themselves if they think that southern white male pride is predicated on ONE symbol and a political one at that.

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