Country singer Brad Paisley wants to have a national conversation on race. Paisley began that “conversation” with his single Accidental Racist, a painfully tortured defense against accusations of racism brought against him for wearing a rebel flag.
The rebel flag, I remind you, is a symbol of white supremacy, raised by the rebel army in defense of slavery, and then brought back after the war by the Ku Klux Klan as a symbol of resistance to Reconstruction.
The song includes a performance by rapper LL Cool Jay who provides the counterpoint in the conversation. He asks, among other things, that we move on because “the past is the past, you feel me?”
To me, this so-called conversation sounds more like a monologue, with LL Cool Jay playing the magical negro in Brad Paisley’s head.
Paisley recently summed up the song by saying,
There are two little channels in each chorus that really steal the pie. One of them is, ‘We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells, fighting over yesterday,’ and the other is, ‘Paying for the mistakes that a lot of folks made long before we came.’ We’re all left holding the bag here, left with the burden of these generations. And I think the younger generations are really kind of looking for ways out of this.
He’s right. Those two lines, along with the “looking for ways out of this” slip do sum up the point of the song. Basically it says that 1) we’re carrying around baggage from a racist past we had nothing to do with, 2) the baggage is equally burdensome for all, so 3) let’s just move on and leave the past in the past.
That’s the three count of color blind racism. And it’s exactly what makes it so hard to have a meaningful conversation on race in the U.S.
It doesn’t matter that none of us owned slaves. It matters not a whit that no one living invented Jim Crow nor lifted a rifle in the American Indian Wars. Nor does it matter than none of us were signatories to legislation excluding Asian immigrants, nor party to the mass internment of Japanese Americans.
None of us forced Mexico to sell California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War for a sum that amounts to less than five hundred million of today’s dollars. But that doesn’t matter. It’s equally irrelevant that the last of the white planters who colluded with the U.S. government to hatch a coup against the Hawaiian kingdom, stealing Hawaiian sovereignty and nearly wiping out the Native Hawaiian people, died generations ago.
What matters is that all the raping, stealing, plundering and enslavement in the name of white supremacy did actually happen. And the legacy of that history is much more burdensome and problematic for us all than simple racial resentment.
In 2010, the U.S. government approved a $3.4 billion settlement to partially compensate some 500,000 Native Americans for mismanagement of funds held in trust for them by the Department of the Interior. Mismanagement in this case amounted to something more like stealing, and note that I said the settlement only partially compensated for their losses.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton apologized for U.S. involvement in the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. On behalf of our government, Clinton acknowledged U.S. complicity in stealing the sovereignty, land, and livelihoods of a people who are today the poorest, most landless, most incarcerated, and shortest lived in Hawaii. Then he offered an apology as compensation.
Our nation’s prisons, a system rooted in efforts to contain the aspirations to freedom of black people, are overflowing with African Americans. Racial profiling is a daily reality in the neighborhood where I live. Black and brown people are regularly arrested for drug crimes while whites get a free pass, even though whites are as prone to drug abuse as black people and, by virtue of sheer numbers, are the economic drivers of the illegal drug trade.
Many black and brown people still live in ghettos. Those ghettos were created by New Deal housing policies that promoted white home ownership while excluding black people, worsening and solidifying a racial wealth gap we still live with today. No amount of forgiving and forgetting will make that wealth gap go away.
The U.S. government deported over 400,000 immigrants in 2012. Families were destroyed. Some of those immigrants came here as refugees of U.S. sponsored wars. Others came for work. Many U.S. grown agricultural products would never have made it to our tables without them.
As the song says, we are each inheritors of our collective history, and, in the way of inheritances, many to their relative advantage. But, others of us have inherited an unjust debt that must be forgiven before we can forget the circumstances under which that debt was created.
So, yeah, I’m all about racial reconciliation. But to begin the conversation by minimizing history and pretending that it’s only legacy is tension? Sorry, but that’s just racist.