Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”

Controversial song with LL Cool J aims to start a conversation about race in America.

photo by Bret Hartman/CBS

Brad Paisley's new album, Wheelhouse, hit stores today (April 9) and before the cash registers even began to ring, the Internet was on fire with scalding criticism and passionate discussion of one particular track: the bold (some might say misguided) "Accidental Racist," featuring LL Cool J.

In the song, Brad slots himself in the role of a Starbucks patron who offends an African American barista by sporting the rebel flag on his Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt, apparently totally unaware of the negative way in which many people view the flag. He acknowledges that he's still got a lot to learn, and is trying to understand what it's like to not be a white Southern man. I'm proud of where I'm from but not everything we've done, he sings in the chorus.

The song attempts to give the African American perspective through LL Cool J's rap, asking that he not be judged for his sagging pants or gold chains and he'll try not to do the same when he sees a cowboy hat or the stars-and-bars.

It's not the "worst song ever," as some have hastily declared. But it's not a great song, least of all by Brad's standards. He has previously written considerably more eloquent (and catchy) tunes about diversity, such as his recent hit "Southern Comfort Zone." This one, while well-intentioned, isn't so well executed.

And let me preface the rest of this by saying that I grew up in a small Alabama town. Maybe that makes a difference to you, maybe not.

First off, Brad does seem to have his heart in the right place, genuinely grappling with implications of being white and Southern and how his appearance is perceived by others of different backgrounds. And on the flip side, how white Southerners are often wrong in their perceptions of others. Its intent—though clumsy—is to start a conversation, and it deserves some praise in that sense, considering that it's the rare country song to address race. Maybe country radio will play it and maybe the predominantly white listening audience will start to address some of these things.

That's probably a good thing. Let's hope that's the case.

To his credit, Brad seems to have anticipated the controversy and discussion. "This is a record meant to be FAR from easy listening," he tweeted late last night.

The part I can't defend so easily is the presence of the Confederate flag.

I'm all for not judging people based on appearances and manner, as any sane person should be. But those things are quite personal and a far cry from the whole history of slavery, oppression and institutionalized racism summed up in the flag, even if it's on something as innocuous as a Skynyrd shirt. And yet LL offers, If you don't judge my do-rag, I won't judge your red flag, and If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains, as if somehow they're equal. They're not.

Considering the amount of discussion we've had in this country over why we shouldn't fly the flag in Southern capitols and courtrooms, this really shouldn't be a surprise. Among country music fans, the debate likely still rages, but from the outside the idea of a white guy wondering why his rebel flag T-shirt has offended someone will probably come off as a bit naive.

You can say it's about "heritage," but here's the deal: you can be proud of your Southern upbringing and roots (I am) without wearing something that is a blatant offense and reminder of the enslavement of your fellow Americans.

That seems like a pretty decent way to start down the path toward understanding. Then maybe we can look past the belt buckles or saggy jeans to see the individuals wearing them.

Let's continue the conversation. What do you guys think of Brad's song?

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