The Meaning Behind “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley

“Accidental Racist” opens with Brad Paisley wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. Lynyrd Skynyrd are Southern rock legends who have a history of using the Confederate flag as a regular part of the band’s imagery. In 2012, guitarist Gary Rossington (1951-2023) told The Atlantic that the band’s decision to stop using the flag was to distance itself from “any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.” Some of the band’s fans pushed back at the time, saying the flag represented Southern heritage and states’ rights. Later, Rossington capitulated and Lynyrd Skynyrd resumed using the Confederate flag. 

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The flag’s defenders talk about states’ rights, but it’s important to remember that those states’ rights very much had to do with slavery. The states’ rights crowd didn’t seem opposed to centralized power when the Dred Scott decision was handed down. The Confederate flag is stitched to Jim Crow laws. The so-called “battle flag” came to represent a group of states at war with its own country.

In “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley and LL Cool J make attempts to reckon with the past and speak to each other about race without speaking past one another. 

The Meaning Behind the Song

Brad Paisley, inspired by the films Lincoln and Django, wanted to address how one can have Southern pride while also disavowing racism. In the song, Paisley talks about wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag as a symbol of the South. 

The red flag on my chest somehow is
Like the elephant in the corner of the South
And I just walked right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ole can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn

In the first verse, Paisley walks into a Starbucks in the South, dressed in a Lynyrd Skynyrd Confederate flag shirt, and explains to a Black barista that this shirt only represents Paisley’s love for the band. The opening line is patronizing and clumsy in the way it homogenizes Black people into a sameness.

The coffee shop incident goes unresolved. When Paisley refers to “the elephant in the corner of the South,” you wonder why he called the song “Accidental Racist.” The phrase ‘elephant in the room’ means we have an obvious problem to deal with. And if something is obvious how can it be accidental?

Then LL Cool J shows up representing “the other side of the conversation,” and he ends up analogizing gold chains with slave chains.

If you don’t judge my gold chains
I’ll forget the iron chains

LL Cool J wasn’t finished:

If you don’t judge my do-rag
I won’t judge your red flag

These are not lines you would expect from one of the greatest rappers in history. “Accidental Racist” seems well-intentioned but comes across as silly. 

The Writers

“Accidental Racist” was written by Paisley, LL Cool J, and Lee Thomas Miller. It appeared on Paisley’s 2013 album, Wheelhouse. The song’s aim—according to Paisley—was to start a conversation about race, for a new generation, in an attempt to leave behind the wounds of a distant past. 

We’re still picking up the pieces
Walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday

Even with progress the past still lingers. The Unite the Right rally—a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—happened four years after “Accidental Racist” was released. Trayvon Martin, carrying Skittles and a drink, was murdered on the street just one year before “Accidental Racist” came out. What we see here is not an accident but a systemic pattern of hate and cruelty. 

The problem with oversimplifying a complex subject is you are left singing, “Walkin’ on eggshells” in a country where Black people’s voting rights are still being stripped away. For the lead character of the song, maybe the least he could do is ditch the band shirt that’s decorated with a hate symbol.

About the Song

Brad Paisley and LL Cool J collaborated on “Accidental Racist” to address racism, but the lyrics are reductive and they imply that what’s really wrong is just a misunderstanding. Paisley awkwardly tries to broach the issue in an “aw-shucks” kind of manner. The song reaches a bizarre state when LL Cool J delivers his rap.

RIP Robert E. Lee 
But I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean

RIP Robert E. Lee? 

Having an impact

Though Wheelhouse débuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart, the backlash to the song was considerable. Paisley was still fuming about the reaction when he released Moonshine in the Trunk one year later. “I’m not going to take this anymore,” Paisley told Billboard. “I’m a musician. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have done that.”

When the song was released in 2013, critics questioned the motives. Did LL Cool J agree to the collaboration to boost media attention for an upcoming record? He released Authentic three weeks after “Accidental Racist.”

The reviews weren’t kind to “Accidental Racist” and the song was parodied on Saturday Night Live by Kenan Thompson and Jason Sudeikis. 

Conclusion

Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz wrote in 2013, “‘Accidental Racist’ carries good intentions, but Paisley’s latest track fails to become more than a flat-footed apology for hate-induced uneasiness.”

Brad Paisley is known for being a great guitar player and for his songwriting wit. “Accidental Racist” sounds… accidental. It’s a song living in no man’s land that’s caught between pride and culpability. 

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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