Among those who love country music, and particularly Down South, it’s a very tricky matter to address the subject of race relations. Country music is usually about love, family values, patriotism, or longing for the “good old days” (which never were that good), but rare indeed is the song that deliberately addresses modern social issues, particularly concerning race. That’s why Brad Paisley’s new song “Accidental Racist” is worthy of note. He describes his motives for releasing the song in this interview with Entertainment Weekly:
“I’m doing it because it just feels more relevant than it even did a few years ago. I think that we’re going through an adolescence in America when it comes to race. You know, it’s like we’re almost grown up. You have these little moments as a country where it’s like, ‘Wow things are getting better.’ And then you have one where it’s like, ‘Wow, no they’re not.’…
“I just think art has a responsibility to lead the way, and I don’t know the answers, but I feel like asking the question is the first step, and we’re asking the question in a big way. How do I show my Southern pride? What is offensive to you? And he kind of replies, and his summation is really that whole let’s bygones be bygones and ‘If you don’t judge my do rag, I won’t judge your red flag.’ We don’t solve anything, but it’s two guys that believe in who they are and where they’re from very honestly having a conversation and trying to reconcile.”
Paisley teamed up with LL Cool J in the performance, and here’s perhaps the most relevant part of the duet:
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)
I have to admit I’m very happy to see his efforts, but it will take a lot more than he can do to change the attitude of millions of people steeped in racism, and he acknowledges this challenge in his statement above that the art community as a whole bears a responsibility to make it happen. Some may scoff at the ability of artists to make a change, but the tectonic shift in American attitudes towards LGBT’s over the past decade (and particularly the past year) show the power Hollywood and the music community can exert when it comes to bringing social change.
On the other hand, racism is so deeply ingrained (particularly in the South) that even now students at Wilcox County High School in Georgia are facing strong opposition in their efforts to hold that school’s very first integrated prom! Imagine that – here we are, nearly fifty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and there’s still a public school where white parents and students are fighting for their “right” to stop blacks from attending the school Prom. Here’s more from the story:
“Though black and white Wilcox students share other aspects of school space, like classrooms and sports fields, there are many unspoken divisions straight out of the pre-civil rights era. According to a feature on WCHS, white students sit in the back during class, while black kids sit in front. Black kids have lunch outside, while white kids have theirs in the yard. White students – particularly girls – who date black students risk being ostracized and bullied.”
This is no different from when I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. What’s really ironic is that if one would ask the whites (including the ones fighting the integration of the school prom), most of them would say with utter sincerity that they’re absolutely not racist; these are the ones who honestly believe they aren’t racist and don’t realize that whatever they may think, their actions certainly are racist. I’ve seen this many, many times, and I should know since I was one of those racists. But that was a lifetime away, a time that I had Southern Pride (that same Southern Pride to which Brad Paisley refers in his song) and a time that I really liked country music. Those days are long gone.
I know whereof Brad Paisley speaks. I heartily applaud his efforts, and he’s right that the arts (beginning with the country music community) must take front-and-center in the fight against racism. He knows he can’t do it alone, that his stance is going to cost him quite a few fans, and any support from Southern politicians (or from many other conservative politicians e.g. Rick Santorum) will be little more than lip service. He knows that it’s going to be a long, hard slog to get the rest of the country music singers on his side, but at least he’s trying.
And who knows? Perhaps there’s a sea change coming in the South. Perhaps Brad is just ahead of the curve of that change. I strongly believe that his effort is sincere, that he means every word, that he doesn’t really care that this might cost him a significant portion of his fan base, that he knows he is unlikely gain more fans even in the long run. Again, at least he’s trying, and I just might buy his album just to show him my support. But I’ve spent enough time Down South that I think his efforts are doomed by the racists within the country music fan base on one hand, and by the apathy of much of the remainder of said fan base on the other.
Most of the rest of the country music community will give polite praise to his efforts, but that’s about it; most of them simply don’t want to lose their fan base. The racism is too deeply ingrained, and the Deep South will not become as progressive (when it comes to race relations) as, say, California for several generations to come.
But at least Brad Paisley is sincere in his efforts to bridge the gap, and that counts for a great deal in my personal opinion.