Racism. Wasn’t that something that the U.S. took care of back in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks? I thought we were over all that jazz. Besides, I just went to see 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson. All that stuff about blacks and whites and all the hatred, that’s all done now, right?
At least, according to country artist Brad Paisley, it’s certainly alive today, and considering the firestorm that has been brewed on account of his new song “Accidental Racist,” I would have to venture that most of the country agrees with him. Now, exactly what Paisley is trying to say about that racism takes a slightly different slant than most people would think. Included on his newly-released album Wheelhouse, the song opens depicting a conversation that takes place between a customer and the man behind the counter at Starbucks. Taking on a bit of country ballad flavor, the Paisley claims that he only wants to show that he’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan by wearing one of their t-shirts, but “The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant in the corner of the south.” In the song, he claims “We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after one hundred fifty years,” and teams up with LL Cool J at the end to say that if the black man and the white man would just not judge one another based on appearances and things that happened generations ago, then maybe we could understand one another.
The big question is, does the song accomplish that? That is when the firestorm kicked in. Everything seems to have started when Paisley wore a shirt featuring the classic country band Alabama that sported the Confederate flag. Some folks noticed and called Paisley racist. This prompted Paisley to write the song with co-writer Lee Thomas Miller, who has written for artists such as Trace Adkins, Jamey Johnson, and Joe Nichols. He then approached LL Cool J about recording the song, and the controversy was born.3 It appears that the public is quite divided over what the song is actually portraying, and digging into the different views has been quite interesting.
Many, if not most, of views that I have found show that people are definitely not happy with Mr. Paisley right now. Bloggers and writers have said that it is “questionable,” “horrible,” “clumsily written,” and shows “willful ignorance.” 1 One blogger claimed that there was nothing good in the song. “Everything. Everything is wrong with it.” 7 Even Christianity Today, which I thought should be included as we are on a good, evangelical campus, said “ Paisley’s lyrics cheapen the complexity and challenges of living in a nation with deep and abiding racial wounds.” 2 While many parties agree that it’s possible that Paisley really did mean well in writing this song, “…well-intended actions can still end up causing more harm than good.” 2
However, like most issues, there are some that fall on the other side of the fence and actually (shocker!) like the new song. In light of all the criticism, it may appear that these are in the minority, but time will tell how all these things fall out. Paisley, himself, describes the song this way:
In the song, really what we’re trying to do is explore what happens when two people have a dialogue. The entire album, Wheelhouse is meant to touch on some themes that aren’t normally touched on in music, and in the context of this record, the song makes a little more sense. But it feels like when you take the song out of this record, it’s like, ‘What? What got him on that?’ It’s kind of unfortunate, but at the same time, maybe something good can come from this. 3
Others have agreed with him on his views and say that critics are missing the point of the song, and some claim that, even though they created all this mess, “he [Paisley] and even LL have done us a favor.” 4 In fact, LL Cool J presented an interesting thought on this storm in an interview, “as long as people are having a conversation, then the art has done its job.” He went on to say how the song reflects some of the controversy surrounding Trayvon Martin. When placed in that context, the song makes sense. 5
So, is the song good or bad? I am not here to make a judgement call. That belongs in Opinions, but maybe I’ll have to throw something in there at some point just to poke the hornet’s nest a bit. Still, if nothing else, the song calls us to look at how we view people. Do we “judge a book by it’s cover” or actually get to know the individual person? In addition, it forces us to take a look what our symbols really mean. There is some debate included in this about whether the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred or heritage. No matter what the final outcome concerning this song is, I do think that it should be a reminder to us that we constantly need to check our own views on culture, race, and those that we label “the other” in our lives.