Southern white men don’t usually drive racial dialogue. For as long as race has riven America, they have been depicted more often as the problem than the solution.
So after country music star Brad Paisley released his new song “Accidental Racist” this week, what happened next was hardly surprising: days of widespread criticism about his attempt to detail the challenges facing a “white man from the Southland” and his recruitment of LL Cool J to rap a black perspective.
The song sparked a predictable blaze last week on TV, talk radio and the Internet. USA Today asked if it was an “epic fail.” At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates titled his analysis, “‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist.” More than a few ridiculed it as “the worst song ever.”
Some elements of the outcry, however, raise less predictable questions: Where does naiveté turn into ignorance, and then into racism? What is the basis of modern Southern pride? And, possibly most important, should we grade racial attitudes on a curve?
Paisley begins the song with an anecdote about a black man taking offense to his Confederate flag T-shirt. “The only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan,” Paisley sings, referring to the pioneering Southern rock group.
That scene actually happened to Paisley in real life, said Charlie Cook, programming director for West Virginia Radio Corp. and a member of the Country Music Association’s board of directors, who heard Paisley discuss the song with a group of industry executives.
“He sat down and thought about it from another person’s perspective and said, ‘If I offended you, it was accidental,’” Cook said. “I think it’s really from his heart.”
That doesn’t matter, say many of the critical voices. They say it’s the result that counts — a song that, to them, turns some of the most stinging flashpoints of American racial history into aw-shucks anecdotes. They are receiving a message very different from the one Paisley intended: the country-music staple of trying to figure out one’s experiences through song.