Here’s a piece I recently wrote for The New York Times Room for Debate section about LL Cool J and Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental Racist.”
Originally published in the New York Times
If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.
If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.
–LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist”
Take a quick ride with me …
The prison industrial complex, a draconian machine of racial injustice that warehouses young and poor black men and women who, in turn, work for cents-per-hour for Fortune 500 companies, is not accidental. The New Jim Crow is no accident.
The overpopulated, underfunded, predominantly black inner city public schools that I attended, the ones with bars covering the windows and no textbooks, are not accidental. The school-to-prison pipeline is no accident.
The ice-cold murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd, Laura Nelson, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Troy Davis, Yusef Hawkins, Sean Bell, Kenneth Chamberlain and countless others are not accidental. Police brutality is no accident.
The assassinations of Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Harry and Harriette Moore were not accidents. The racially charged threats that President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama receive daily — not accidental.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little girls was not accidental. The justice denied to the Scottsboro Boys, Shaquanda Cotton and the Jena Six are not accidents.
The Confederate flags that rustled above the carnival-like atmosphere where blacks were lynched, that glowed with fire during cross burnings, that flew menacingly in the brave brown faces of students who dared to go to school, that flew in defense of slavery, a brutal system that robbed your ancestors of their humanity for centuries, is the same red flag that flies today. No accident.
Racism is a lot of things — cancerous, insidious, learned, dangerous, destructive, dumb, vicious, institutional — but not accidental. Neither is your idea of forgetting “the iron chains.” Forgetting our collective past, no matter how good, bad or ugly those narratives may be — is mutually assured destruction. We must study our past, remembering, as Maya Angelou put it, that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”