Accidental racists and honest conversation

Jennifer Gratz Lead Plaintiff, Gratz v. Bollinger

When Brad Paisley and LL Cool J teamed up for a duet about race, controversy was sure to follow. Their new song, “Accidental Racist,” did not disappoint, stirring up a firestorm of criticism (who better than Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic to summarize the “sophisticated” outrage and explain why the lyrics are actually racist). However you feel about the quality of the lyrics or the validity of the backlash, this song is significant.

On the surface this is a case of two entertainers trying to demonstrate that earnest and honest communication about race is possible. There is nothing wrong (at least there shouldn’t be) with expressing personal views about racial tension. More expression should be encouraged, not stifled.

On another level, though, this song gets at the heart of why all our conversations about race end up being so depressingly unproductive.

The most important lines come from the chorus:

Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride
And Southern blame

The line about “walking on eggshells” sums up the current state of race relations pretty well. It’s been nearly 50 years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and everyone knows we’re supposed to be having a conversation about race. In reality, though, what is supposed to be a conversation ends up being entirely one-sided because people are afraid of being honest.

This is a big problem. The last time I checked, it’s nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation when eggshells are involved. And yet cultural critics are relentless in rooting out all manner of politically incorrect talk to the point where coming off as an accidental racist makes you an actual racist, regardless of intention.

The fierce reaction to the song is a case in point of why people are afraid to talk about race. The two artists clearly had good intentions, but of course that doesn’t matter. This is why Attorney General Eric Holder was not too far off the mark when he said we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race.

It’s wrong for people to assume that do-rags and baggy pants make someone a thug in the same way that it’s wrong to assume that wearing a Confederate flag shirt makes someone a racist or blonde hair makes someone a ditz. We all carry unfair biases and preconceptions, but we still have to talk about them. And yes, this means someone might get offended.

As far as the conversation about race is concerned, we have to start with the premise that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, should be treated equally (under the law and when it comes to discussing race issues). Surprisingly, we’re still working on this one. So much of our politics and policy today revolves around dividing people into cumbersome group identities and treating people differently based on skin color. This is wrong, and it has to end.

This song is not the answer to the race conversation. It’s just a small part of the bigger conversation that should be taking place between individuals every day. It starts with equal treatment, and when honesty is thrown in the mix, it should end with mutual respect.

Jennifer Gratz was the lead plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case challenging race preferences in college admissions. After prevailing at the U.S. Supreme Court, Ms. Gratz started and led the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative and later mentored others to bring similar ballot initiatives to their states. In 2007, Ms. Gratz was honored to receive the Reagan Award for Leadership from the American Conservative Union. Gratz is the founder and CEO of the XIV Foundation.