“Accidental Racist,” written by musicians Brad Paisley, LL Cool J and Lee Thomas Miller, is one of the bravest and worst ideas in the history of country music. At the time of its release, and to this day, it was and is regarded as the most accidentally racist song about accidental racism. Days after its original release, audiences — especially in the American South — still debate the appropriateness of its nuanced commentary on Southern pride and hip-hop culture, as well as Paisley and Cool J’s failure to execute the song’s message of racial harmony and understanding between African-Americans and American Caucasians, which most critics and defenders alike roundly agreed was at least well-meaning, albeit ham-fisted.
Following in the footsteps of 20th century interracial musical duo Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Paisley and Cool J’s collaboration garnered comparisons to the controversial 1982 single “Ebony and Ivory,” and its surrounding controversy evoked references to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which, upon release in the 20th Century, similarly sparked a “Too soon?”-style national debate on the South’s complicated, often maligned history of racism and white Southerners' responsibility to own that history.
Although “Accidental Racist” was a departure from previous Paisley songs, which tended toward themes of trucks, drinking beer, camouflage and fun-lovin’ small-town livin’, Southerners and other country music fans mostly liked the song, accidentally racistly relating to its protagonist’s grossly inept dismissal of common-sense tact as political correctness and socially dyslexic struggle to embrace his Southern pride and simultaneously distance himself from the enduring stigma of slavery. (The song was also a departure for Cool J, who was known for tackling issues like doing it, and doing it well.)
On the Internet, however, bloggers, comedians, music critics, post-modern media pundits and people who laugh at BuzzFeed listicles over Jeff Foxworthy jokes ridiculed and condemned “Accidental Racist” for minimizing the South’s lasting impact of slavery and its societal prejudices, to which it fool-heartedly attempted to apply the proverbial pop-country band-aid.
Cool J rapping, “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,” drew particularly fierce criticism from The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, who wrote, “It’s pretty insane to compare an inoffensive piece of headgear to a flag that represents a treasonous secession movement devoted to maintaining the practice of slavery. It’s even more insane to compare jewelry to, you know, slave shackles. … This is exactly how not to write a song about the Confederate flag.” Comedian Patton Oswalt was among those who mocked the song, tweeting, “I can’t wait for Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s next single: 'Whoopsy Daisy, Holocaust, My Bad.'” The song was also derided for its lack of musical attributes. Spin music critic Brandon Soderberg called the song a “toxic dud” and the recording a “plastic-sounding Nashville facsimile fitted with rudimentary nods to hip-hop production — electronic drums tug along the almost six-minute song, while its studio effects-soaked sound vaguely nods to record scratching.”
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, “Accidental Racist”'s popularity has endured. Now, days after its release, Wheelhouse, Brad Paisley’s album featuring the song, remains one the top-selling albums in country music.
This simple analysis is written to give students and Internet trolls a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of “Accidental Racist.” It is also meant to curtail future instances of accidental racism among students who might attempt to defend “Accidental Racist” with friends, families and teachers, and accept the song as a like-shit-sounding tragically inept work along the lines of the unreleased 1972 Jerry Lewis Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried and recognize it as a jaw-dropping blunder destined to take a singular place in the pantheon of pop-culture footnotes.
Brad — A white man from the Southland, Brad is proud of where he’s from, but not of what his ancestors did there. Despite his shame, and because he can’t rewrite history, Brad has difficulty understanding it, and thus absolves himself of any burden to sensibly and thoughtfully acknowledge the weight of that history. He is a simple-minded, myopic man whose failure to understand the social and political implications of his wardrobe explains his propensity for accidental racism. Is his willful ignorance insurmountable? Or can Brad break the cycle and overcome the accidental racism passed down to him by generations of intentional racists?
LL — A black Yankee serving coffee at a Starbucks, LL is well-versed in the culture of low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods, especially when it comes to fashion. More intuitive than Brad, LL is well aware that his dress style arouses stereotypes among rebel sons like Brad, and, like Brad, is burdened and woebegone. A magnanimous character, LL challenges Brad’s knee-jerk prejudices and tries to intellectually bargain with him, in hopes that they can coalesce in a greater understanding of their cultural differences. Ironically, along the way LL fatally understates the legacy of slavery, perhaps even more unforgivably than Brad does. Can he be redeemed?
Summary and Analysis
Act 1 - The song, an anecdotal study on the complex duality between “Southern Pride and Southern shame,” starts out as an open letter from Brad to LL. Brad is reflecting on an awkward encounter he had with LL earlier that day, in which he patronized LL’s Starbuck’s while wearing a T-shirt proudly displaying a Confederate flag. Brad explains that he is by no means a Confederate sympathizer, but rather is a fan of flagship Southern rock music group Lynyrd Skynyrd, which uses the flag to symbolize Southern lifestyles and values, much in the way English Rock Band Def Leppard uses a Union Jack to represent working-class British pride, not to commemorate the British Empire’s centuries-long occupation of India. Brad longs for LL to understand that he would’ve totally voted against slavery back in the day and that loving Lynyrd Skynyrd is a regional birthright. This was a common belief among rough-hewn, white, Southern males of all ages at the time of “Accidental Racist"’s release.
Upon meeting LL, Brad realizes that wearing the T-shirt in the presence of an African-American — many of whom, especially in the American South, can trace their genealogical roots back to slavery — is tantamount to walking an elephant in the room, thus making him look like an ignorant racist. It then dawns on Brad that being a simple Southern white man isn’t so simple after all. Though Brad condemns the darker corners of Southern history and harbors no hate or notions of racial superiority in his heart, he did grow up in the Southern American state of West Virginia, which ranks 37th in education, thus making him 37 times more likely to be ignorant than someone educated in Vermont, the state that tops the list.
As such, Brad doesn’t intellectually or emotionally grasp what the BFD is. And, though he tries to put himself in LL’s shoes, he gives up upon realizing that he’s not Buffalo Bill, the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs, and putting himself in LL’s skin is next to impossible. So, instead of challenging himself to understand why the implications of his T-shirt are so inflammatory, he can only dwell on his own (by comparison grossly trivial) visceral feelings of being judged and marginalized simply for how he chooses to dress.
In his own defense, but as smoking-gun proof of his ignorance, Brad distances himself from the trespasses of his ancestors — despite how he benefits from living in a nation that built its wealth on centuries of free labor — and, in so many words, implores LL to get over it because neither of them can rewrite history. Brad’s lament of “sifting through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years” and “paying for the mistakes” of previous generations was also prevalent among rough-hewn white, Southern males of all ages at the time of the song’s release. Hence the epidemic of accidental racism that made “Accidental Racist” a seminal song at the time of its release.
Act 2 - In a remarkable twist, the song’s final and most controversial verses, performed as a rap, reveal that — despite his deeper, more personal understanding of history — LL is equally eager and willing to flippantly dismiss (i.e., see beyond) the controversial, contextual and historical albatross of Brad’s T-shirt for the greater good of fixin’ the relationship between the Mason-Dixon line of empathy that divides them.
Just as Brad doesn’t want LL to think he’s donning the red flag on his Skynyrd T-shirt as a badge of racism, LL doesn’t want Brad to see his saggin’ pants, gold chains and 'do-rag — which are presumably not part of his Starbucks uniform — as cause to question his standing as a law-abiding citizen. LL comes to the conclusion that, perhaps due to complicated sociological conditionings of their respective cultures to which they both subscribe with pride, both well-meaning men have subconsciously judged and misunderstood each other.
But LL is really meeting Brad more than halfway, and in his intellectual journey, stumbles into a gaping chasm of false equivalency when he short-sightedly overlooks the simple fact that do-rags, gold chains and sagging pants are not soaked in the same (or for that matter, any) historical blood as the red flag and slave chains.