The Weird New Racism

Before we start, let’s listen to a song. It’s called “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley with LL Cool J:

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In case the video goes away (the official video was already yanked), here are the lyrics:

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

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

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
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
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

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

It’s not Paisley’s best stuff, but it’s okay. I have no idea how it rates with LL Cool J’s work, since the only thing I know him from is Deep Blue Sea, an enjoyable film in which Samuel L. Jackson gets bitten in half by a shark while standing in a room delivering an inspirational speech. I’m pretty sure the scene was racist. Everything is nowadays.(Yeah, like it was an accident that a white Nordic filmmaker had a Great White shark chomping down on the coolest black man in modern film. Pull the other one.)

For those who don’t pay attention to contemporary country, Paisley is the most gifted of the new generation: a songwriter, producer, singer, and one of the best guitarists out there. He moves between old-school “real” country and Top 40 with ease, and he seems to be a pretty likable, sincere guy. His work is guileless, which naturally strikes a tinny note for the irony-saturated arbiters of modern hip culture.

Now that you’ve read the lyrics. What was your first reaction? Because people are exploding: “That song is racist!” “Is this a joke?” “Wrongheaded.” “White supremacist .” “Toxic.” “Horrible.” “Clueless.” “An 11th grade AP US History Project.” And so on.

Well okay then. Isn’t that interesting.

The song is a bit plodding for Paisley, using the key and tempo he usually reserves for love songs, which he happens to write very well. I guess he didn’t think a rousing uptempo number like his optimistic paean to modern life and racial tolerance, “Welcome to the Future” (which was as much of a pro-Obama song as country music is likely to produce), fit the seriousness of the material.

The song actually tackles a couple of pretty central issues, which the smart set waves away in their contempt of all things Southern, white, and country. It begins by recognizing the problems people have with the main symbol of Southern pride: the Rebel flag. The rectangular Confederate Battle Flag wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy, and didn’t really become adopted by racist groups until the Civil Rights struggles. Since then, it’s retained its pride of place for southerns as a benign symbol of all things Southern while also taking on, for some, a sinister meaning of oppression and intolerance.

Paisley acknowledges this, saying “I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done” and “caught between southern pride and southern blame.” In his section, LL (Cool? LLCJ? Mr. J?)  says he feels like he’s “dodgin’ invisible white hoods” and “when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good and “I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here.”

As lyrics, they’re not great, but they’re honest: a rural white southerner and an urban black northerner explaining themselves in simple words.

But that’s not enough, you see. Every single DIALOGUE ON RACE!(TM) has to begin with the proper oblations. The self-excoriation of the white man. The umpteenth rehashing of a history we all already know. The acknowledgement of every white person’s inherent bigotry. The assertion as fact of the idea of “institutionalized racism” as though nothing has changed since Selma. All of it must be dragged out, beaten to death, hoisted up for examination, poked a bit with a pointed stick … and then we can start talking about how a rebel flag shirt makes the black man uncomfortable, and how a group of black teens in saggy pants on a dark city street makes the white man uncomfortable, and how this makes the white guy horrible.

People are particularly outraged at LL Cool J’s line “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains,” as though he’s drawing some kind of equivalence between the two rather than just making an awkward symmetrical rap, while pointing out that slavery was a long time ago and maybe we can stop beating each other up over it.

The vast majority of poor southern whites did not own slaves. In fact, they suffered greatly during the war, and bore the burden in blood, land, stability, and treasure for a minority of slave-holding landowners. They didn’t fight for slavery. They fought for their states and their homes.

Here’s the thing: smug white liberal northern twits like Brandon Soderberg and Nate Jones and Max Read and many others are basking in their self-satisfaction as they hurl insults at Paisley for not being properly brainwashed about current identity politics. They ape their masters (pundits, college professors, political demagogues) well, spouting trendy nonsense about race, “privilege” (for heaven’s sake check your privilege, people!), and the latest batch of BS wafting out of the academy: microaggressions  (If you don’t know what that last thing is, I beg you, please don’t Google it. You get dumber just being exposed to some ideas.)

Bad theory suits this current generation of young white writers, at uniformly white media outlets, suddenly noticing the whiteness of every institution (conservatism, corporate America, Southern culture, country music) except their own. Ace and Twitchy have been documenting this strange trend in which white people (“Persons of Pallor”) insult whites and whiteness in order to gain some weird kind of multi-culti hipster cred. It’s both infantile and frightening, because this kind of public racial demagoguery is only done as a social shorthand that says, “I notice the important things and I’m better than those other people. Also, I’m not a racist, so please like me!” In the process of burnishing their liberal credentials they’re just poisoning the well.

You know how you signal that you’re not a racist in a healthy society? You don’t be racist. But that’s boring and not proactive enough and might actually be a kind of unconscious privileged reverse microaggression, so you have to incessantly point out the racism and racial homogeneity of others.

It makes perfect sense that someone exposed to a well-intentioned, non-racist white Southern country superstar in a rebel shirt singing about race with a black man would go all explodey-head. Rich White Famous Redneck doesn’t check his privilege! He thinks his problems matter! He acts like slavery ended 150 years ago!

I’m a Yankee to the bone. I have a framed photo of Sherman on my library wall, and I think Robert E. Lee was a traitor. When the war was over, it was Sherman who immediately set about trying to help and protect the south, so much so that he was accused of being soft on them. And it was Lincoln who said “We are not enemies, but friends,” and proposed generous terms of Reconstruction: terms which were abandoned in favor of a more brutal policy by Johnson. The experience of both whites and blacks would have arguably been quite different under Lincoln’s original plan, but instead we got decades of white southern anger and black southern oppression which only began to be righted in the 1950s.

In other words, it’s complicated, just like the relationship between southern whites and blacks, who share a land and a culture and are not at all the bitter enemies of the Northern Liberal imagination. The knee-jerk assumption that whites are inherently racist and blacks are inherently oppressed is offensive to both races. Thirty years ago (!!!) Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were able to perform the wonderfully hokey “Ebony and Ivory” without the hand-wringing and head-wagging we’re enduring from the Smart Set over “Accidental Racist.”

Forty years ago (!!!), Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman were able to mock racists, hicks, Westerns, Jews, Hollywood, Germans, and gays in a pointed, brilliant, hilarious film that could never, ever, ever be made today under the gaze of the same people haranguing Paisley and LL Cool J. (Even Tarantino wouldn’t try it without the distraction of violence.)

The truth is, we were more honest about race in the 1960s and 1970s than we’ve been since the rise of political correctness. Django wasn’t something new: it was a throwback to a kind of entertainment we don’t make anymore: bold, racially charged, dangerous.

Everything now is wrapped in a cozy cotton batting of theory and must come with a long litany of disclaimers while also being the product of Ritually Pure Sources (elite, college educated, liberal, politically correct). A redneck singing about why he wears a rebel flag on his chest without just offering an apology and admitting his obvious and inherent racism? That just won’t do.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Jennifer Fitz

    [A little background: I'm a bi-cultural yankee-dixie white person. Reared in the north, matured in the south, 3/4's of my grandparents are yankee, 1/4 southernest of southerners. I don't spend a lot of time drinking pop culture; I do spend a lot of time listening to normal people from all corners of everywhere.]

    On a straight reading of the lyrics, I find them unsophisticated, not the highest of art in the genre, but they do a decent job of communicating the state of race-relations in the south today, among folks of good will. I find it to be a good piece of dialogue, that correctly addresses some real problems. Nicely done.

    I also like the way the song is put together, which creates a message in itself. I will spare you the details of the galling racist invective I get to endure when in a room of nothing but respectable white yankees — just let it be noted that northern white folk have not proven themselves especially less racist than their southern counterparts, they just put on a better face. In my experience.

    My other experience is that yankees are way freaked out about race, and southerners talk about it quite openly. Which causes northerners to assume any mention of the Physical Attribute That Shall Not Be Named is an indicator of racism. Southerners mostly laugh at this taboo. We’re used to being treated like idiots, be assured we bless those northern hearts.

    What strikes me most, though, is how this song seems, to me, to be the natural follow-on to where the real work of improving race relations takes place everyday: On the shop floor. Walk the machine floors of a southern industrial corridor, or the classrooms of vocational and technical schools, and that’s where white and black folk are getting together, eating lunch together, and yes, eventually hooking up and having children together (unfortunately, not marrying so much, marriage has increasingly become the province of the upper-classes). What with the rap generation and the post-civil-rights redneck generation now firmly into middle age, meaning we middle-aged folk have grown up with the various cultural symbols mentioned in the song, but also with anti-racist values publicly espoused . . . it’s time the song be written. Again, nicely done.

    I think the writers of this song are exactly what Jesus is talking about when He says the meek will inherit the earth. Not polished. Not on-message. But honestly trying to right an injustice and accomplish some peace-making.

  • Ted

    Are you sure you’re not the one with the knee-jerk reaction, Thomas? The reaction to this stupid song has you this fired up? Goodness.

    You make the point that whites are forced to feel guilty, that when we talk about race, we have to admit the transgressions of our ancestors and the prevalence of our privilege. In all my years as a whiter-than-white person on this planet, I haven’t experienced blacks trying to make me feel guilty for slavery or oppression. Instead, I have found them more than willing to engage in meaningful dialogue that has really filled my heart with love, understanding, hope, and peace. I’m a better person for these interactions.

    On to a thornier matter. It seems to me that whites are the ones who haven’t gotten over slavery. Remember the belief many Tea Partiers (a predominately white group) had about Obama’s health care plan? It was considered payback for slavery, some sort of “back door reparations” as nut-case-in-a-suit Glenn Beck called it. Or how about the way many regard poor blacks? I caught a lot of heat from other whites for volunteering at a food pantry. Why? Because I was incapable of realizing that “those” people feel they are “owed” something. That “something” was past oppression.

    I’m sorry, Thomas, but the momentary discomfort you and I may feel when listening to the fallout from this stupid song just can’t compare to what others in our society have endured.

    It’s not about guilt. It’s about compassion. And conversation. And relationships.

  • Shank Rosenthal

    Cleavon Little…not Richard Pryor.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Those were the writers: Pryor worked on the script.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You misunderstand. It’s not a reaction to a song: it’s a reaction to entire school of thought of which this was the latest example. If you read carefully, I never said that black people try to make whites feel bad about slavery. In fact, the entire piece was a criticism of a very vocal sector of hipster WHITES that have been stoking the fires of racism to make themselves look progressive. It was never about race, but about how a certain segment of the commentariat believe we should approach race. It’s merely the latest in a line of their nauseating race-baiting that includes CPAC and Dr. Ben Carson.

  • maurice pinay

    True history shows that a certain group of folks both in the North and South have handled the slave trade and the public relations side of slavery and the so-called civil war in such a way that they’ve owned and continue to own and to direct both sides of the discourse. So the song-writer’s use of the words, “what we’ve done” in relation to slavery is misguided.
    The movies, songs, and television of the 1960′s, 70′s (remember Archie Bunker?) and 80′s were set peices purposefully permitted and promoted by the culture creators in order to set the table for the politically correct times of today. Archie Bunker and the Jeffersons were the character types you were told to stop identifying with and/or approve of, if you knew what was good for you. There was soon going to be a third way..meaning no western culture at all. White and black culture both needed to be destroyed to bring in the new. The nations across the Atlantic are now merely units of the European Union. Soon, on this side of the pond, we are to be referred to only as units of the North American Union, part of a “greater” whole for the “common” good. If you think about it, culture is what keeps people together and safe. Without culture to bind people together, it’s open season on your mind and your life. Most will think I’ve taken a gigantic leap from the article here, but I haven’t. All is to be standardized by the new slavery which is technocracy. The sooner we realize who the true slave masters are, the better.

  • victor

    I know nothing of the South and even less about country music, but it seems to me that when any art form (a term generously applied to country music) feels the need to aplogize for its existence, that art form is essentially dead.

  • Pingback: The death of Country “Music”

  • victor

    And it sounds like the studio was none-too-pleased about bringing “Saddles” to the screen, even 40 years ago.

  • Alexander Anderson

    I have a tough time with this. I will readily admit that I harbor a bit of contempt for things Southern and country. I have always found the “Confederate Flag” a bit offensive. But I understand displaying it in the South. Some small group of people think it’s a good idea to display it in the middle of Iowa. THAT’s offensive. Hundreds of Iowans died defending the Union. But I digress. I also despise our self-righteous cultural elites who make us swallow whatever the latest crap, seeing racism everywhere in a way that degrades our memory of the horrors of actual racism. So I’m torn here, but I’ll side with you. I still don’t think the song’s any good, though.

  • Shank Rosenthal

    I had no idea. I apologize for assuming you had made a mistake.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I know places in Eastern and Southern Oregon that would react the exact same way as those fellows in Blazing Saddles if a gay was elected sheriff. Or a Californicator.

    Of course, a large part of that is due to Bagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers- and what they did to Antelope.

  • Pansy Moss

    I don’t know, I think you’re reading into it too much.
    Also, when I articles like this, I think there seems to be a failure to recognize that race relations in this country suck. A lot. Just a few minutes ago, I was having a discussion with my neighbor about elementary schools in area as we are considering putting our kids in public school and no longer home schooling. The way we decided which schools were ranked the best? the one in which her daughter was only called nigger once or twice and that the principle actually addressed it with the offending kids.

    When you are black in this country, this is a normal, run of the mill, everyday conversation: where can we go that’s safe.

    When this crap totally desists, then we can talk about people not having to address racial issues. in the meantime, if you have no race issues, continue not to have race issues, and teach your children the same. That’s what will make this better. Color blindness. I get that it’s frustrating.

    The song is silly and trite to me, and that is the worst offense. Also, go listen to some LL. He’s been making music since the mid-80s since he was 16 and is a hip hop legend. By the time the movie you, mentioned came out, he had a successful career long behind him. I wish if you were going to comment on his music, you listened to it.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Who’s talking “about people not having to address racial issues”? That’s what these two guys (who, it turns out, are friends) tried to do. Paisley wrote his half and told LL Cool J he could write anything at all for his part. Its relative merits aside, it was two guys talking about race using plain language and everyday experience, and it was attacked for that very reason. The criticism wasn’t “well, that’s not such a great song” it was “they didn’t follow the rules for talking about race in America.”

    And I didn’t comment on LL Cool J’s music at all, since, as I said, I don’t know it. Funny, though: critics who’ve never heard a note of Brad Paisley opined at length on HIS work. Weird!

  • Tom

    Personally, I find it to be the redheaded stepchild of “Ebony and Ivory” and “Guilt of Being White,” but that’s neither here nor there.

    The criticisms seem to be divided into two camps: the “it’s racist” side and the “it’s a bad song” side. While the first is wrong for all the reasons you listed, and the second makes some valid points, subjective though art criticism may be. I mean, “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin,’” and “RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean.” What does that mean?

    On a side note, the song itself doesn’t appear to be on youtube, just video upon video of hand-wringing and back-and-forth of “It’s racist!” “No it isn’t!” ad infinitum.

  • Kullervo

    Amen. Wonderfully said.