Racism. It never goes out of style, does it?
The pop culture controversy of the week, if you are lucky enough to have missed it thus far, concerns a new ditty called “Accidental Racist,” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.
A song about the Deep South by a West Virginian country star and a rapper. As a Northern Yankee marinated in 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, I of course could barely contain myself to comment on this particular cultural kerfuffle.
The gist of the track in question, which can easily be gleaned from its title, is that racial insensitivity can be inferred without necessarily being implied. That a man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag, as in the song’s opening verse, may be signaling nothing more than his affinity for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That many race-based arguments spring from simple misunderstandings rather than any deep-seated hatred or distrust.
Of course, this sentiment has not exactly been welcomed by anyone as cutting edge. Critics of the song have dismissed its lyrics as everything from hopelessly naïve to outright appalling—in one verse, it seems to imply that wearing a tacky gold necklace is morally equivalent to slavery—but in the interest of wringing lemonade from lemons, we might nonetheless do well to examine the questions that “Accidental Racist” oh-so-stumblingly broaches.
For one thing: Is it even possible for a person to be racist by accident, or does this constitute a contradiction in terms?
So long as we are plunging into yet another national conversation on this subject, and so long as “racist” is a term, like “fascist” or “socialist,” that tends to mean whatever its speaker wants it to mean, we should probably agree on a single working definition.
From Merriam-Webster, we find “racism” as simply the “belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
So, can such a phenomenon occur unwittingly?
In a manner of speaking, yes it can.
From time to time, for example, one reads about a house or an elementary school building being spray-painted with swastikas—a so-called “hate crime” if ever there was one—and then it turns out that the perpetrators know nothing about the Nazi Party or the Holocaust it unleashed. What they know is that this four-pointed symbol, so emblazoned in the public square, will create a great uproar, feeding the self-esteem of such hooligans, who care about nothing more than inflating their own egos.
They may well not have an anti-Semitic bone in their bodies. They are playing the part without even knowing it.
The Confederate flag issue is a wee bit tougher to justify.
The state of affairs is as follows: Indentured servitude in the United States was conceived, perpetuated, rationalized and defended on the explicit presumption that black people are inherently inferior to white people. Even Abraham Lincoln, while opposing slavery itself, surmised as much in his famed debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858.
Further, whatever “states’ rights” case one might make regarding the casus belli for the American Civil War, the primary “right” the seceding states were defending was that of continuing to hold human beings as property.
The earliest version of the Confederate battle flag was flown on March 4, 1861—the precise day when Lincoln took office as president, having explicitly vowed to prevent such secession from enduring and branching out.
In short: The Confederate flag is not merely a “symbol” that is “representative” of an officially racist society. Rather, it was commissioned as a direct consequence of, and for the express purpose of defending against, the threat to abolish its citizens’ officially racist practices.
To wear a t-shirt bearing such a flag today and not be labeled a racist? Well, it would require a pronounced lack of familiarity with the information contained in the previous four paragraphs—forgivable in the case of an innocent schoolboy, perhaps, but less so regarding, say, Brad Paisley.
None of this is to say that those who fly the rebel flag from their Jeeps or wear Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts (or Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves) are interested in re-introducing chattel slavery and Jim Crow or truly think white people are superior to black people—except, of course, for those who do—but they are not guiltless for their image in the minds of non-Southerners as profoundly insensitive to and, in some cases, flagrantly ignorant of the history of their beloved country.
All racism is not created equal, but that hardly excuses its perpetuation, in any form, in the modern world.