Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Song “Accidental Racist” Is All Kinds Of WTF

The South. It’s a beautiful but haunted kind of place, filled with the vestiges of the Civil War, slavery and romantic longing for a “different way of life.” You may ask, “What does this Jewish girl living in Brooklyn know about the South?” but I actually lived there as a kid, in Fort Worth, Texas. It is something of a different world down there. And later, when my parents moved us to Southern New Jersey, I experienced a different kind of south — because the tip of New Jersey is below the Mason-Dixon line, there is a contingent of people who live in New Jersey who consider themselves southerners. They have “southern pride.” Is this crazy? Perhaps.

But whether you’ve lived there or not, it’s clear that there are still some rather mighty problems when it comes to race and the South. I mean, there are still segregated proms in Georgia.

Enter Brad Paisley’s new track, “Accidental Racist,” featuring LL Cool J.

Paisley, in the paeon of country music, is a patriot with liberal politics. When Obama was elected, he wrote “Welcome to the Future,” but he also entertained the troops on the Fourth of July. He recorded a parody “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” theme, for chrissakes. He’s funny, and he can take one on the chin when it comes to the typical tropes about country twang.

Here are the lyrics to “Accidental Racist.” Brad’s part is first:

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

And here’s LL Cool J’s part:

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 newfangled 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

If you don’t judge my do-rag
I won’t judge your red flag
If you don’t judge my gold chains
I’ll forget the iron chains
Can’t re-write history baby
The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’
Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately
The past is the past, you feel me
Let bygones be bygones
RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean

And more Brad:

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
It ain’t like you and me can re-write history

Oh, Dixieland
I hope you understand what this is all about
I’m a son of the new south
And I just want to make things right
Where all that’s left is southern pride
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth

Okay, so let’s unpack this. Paisley’s main tack is that he’s got Southern pride, but he’s aware of the crimes of the past. But! He seems to shirk any responsibility for the current state of Southern politics. Let’s face it, many parts of the South are still a bad place to be as a person of color. The South, like any place where a great cultural atrocity has taken place, is still wrestling with the proper balance of apology and shame and forgetting. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That concept is the backbone to much of the common thought around memory politics, and it informs how the American South deals with its troubled history.

But many in the South (just like in post-Holocaust Germany) are now questioning how much they should be held responsible for these historical crimes. And while it may be easy to say that today’s modern day Southerners or Germans shouldn’t be judged by the crimes of the past, when you look at the current wave of antisemitism in Germany, or the still-rampant racism in the South, it’s clear that something isn’t connecting. And that’s why it’s so hard to reconcile Paisley’s lyrics about being a “son of the new South” with the hard realities on the ground. We many have a black president, but the effects of 200 years of slavery are still very much with us. They’re with us in the disparities of income and opportunities that blacks face when compared to whites, and they’re with us in the political and social policies that have historically discriminated against black people. So does Paisley and other “white men” of the “new South” get a pass to refashion Southern pride in their own image? I argue no. We are not yet at the point where “Southern pride” isn’t code for “tacit racism.”

And then there’s the part where Paisley explicity rejects any connection between the South’s racist history and his status as a favored Southern son. “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.” Which “long before we came” do you mean Mr. Paisley? The plantation-backed pro-slavery Confederacy? The post-Reconstructionist slavery redux of sharecropping? How about the pre-Civil Rights-era South, with its “separate but (really far from) equal” policies? The South of George Wallace? The South of David Duke? Or of the Ku Klux Klan and white power rallies? Paisley’s lyrics would like to argue that there is a wide gap between “then” and “now,” but in reality, the South’s legacy of racism (and in fact, the country’s legacy of racism) is actually a far-reaching, multi-layered continuum.

But as ignorant as Paisley’s take is, LL Cool J’s might just be worse. LL Cool J? He’s practically a slavery apologist. Mr. Cool J’s lyrics make the comparison between not judging his “gold chains” and forgetting the “iron chains” of slavery. Nope. Nope. Nope. Comparing a do-rag to a “red” Confederate flag? One is a piece of cloth that African Americans wear to cover their heads and protect their hair. The other? The most vibrant physical remnant of “white Southern pride.”  It’s a symbol of a dark time for people of color. Let’s not forget that it was originally the flag of the Confederate South. You know, the guys who were fighting in defense of slavery. Comparing it to a do-rag is a total false equivalency.

LL Cool J also has the audacity to express sympathy at the death of Robert E. Lee, you know, the commander of the Confederacy’s troops. “RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean.” Yup, LL Cool J actually is apologetic for having to give Abraham Lincoln props over Lee. As Jonathan Hailey at Urban Daily writes, “I understand we’re all people and we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I’ll be damned if I ever send an ‘RIP Robert E. Lee’ anything out into the world. Forgive me for not being sympathetic to Lee’s death, but did I mention that Lee wanted to use slaves as cheap labor in order to end capitalism?”

LL finishes off the track by noting that “The past is the past, you feel me, let bygones be bygones.” Does LL Cool J think that because he’s made it as a successful rapper that we can suddenly erase hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination? Because “Mama Said Knock You Out” just wasn’t that good. Just who is LL Cool J pandering to?

Look, I’m not arguing that Brad Paisley or any other Southerner should have to live in the past. But we also can’t act like slavery and its ugly after-effects didn’t happen and aren’t still happening. And no, none of us alive today are necessarily guilty of perpetuating slavery, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge cultural beliefs and institutions that perpetuate racist ideologies and systems. Should the South have to live in the past? No. But should it be forced to confront the residual racism and oppression Southern slavery has caused? Absolutely. As for Mr. Cool J — perhaps his privilege as a hip-hop superstar has distanced him from the hardbitten reality of many African Americans. Or maybe his own internalized racism has nudged him toward a Southern apologist model. Whatever the case, let’s hope this song and its troublesome tropes will help open a dialogue about race and the residual impact of slavery — and close the rifts between the past and the present.