Friday, January 19, 2007

Hey LZ: Country Music [wa]s Racist. Sorry.

I just read a quick piece on by LZ Granderson, lamenting the fact that NASCAR and country music are consistently lambasted as "hillbilly, redneck or dumb."

Granderson feels victimized (though I'm sure would run screaming from that word) by a panoply of folks, white and black, who indulge in what LZ calls "country-bashing." And, yes, that does happen. But there are some things Granderson gets wrong.

You can dress it up all you want, but make no mistake, black people calling white people who listen to country music and like NASCAR rednecks and crackers is no different than white people calling black people who listen to hip-hop and like the NBA thugs and gangsters.

But the true cat's meow are the white people who are so eager to distance themselves from the "yee-haws" on TV that they lead an internalized racist charge to paint white NASCAR fans as Confederate-flag-waving good ol' boys, in the hope of not being seen as one of them. I'm not a big proponent of this apologetic rhetoric because I believe it's based in the same stereotypical thinking that perpetuates negative perceptions of black people and hip-hop. And it's hurtful. I could be wrong, but I don't believe name-calling was part of Dr. King's dream.

We'll leave out the race-baiting inherent in writing an article like this just days after MLK day. Although Granderson makes some effort to admit that there's some vestigial racism in country music and NASCAR, his claim is that the vast majority of folks who love the cars 'n guitars are normal, non-racist 'Murkins. And that's likely true. But LZ is missing one important fact: What we know as country music was specifically created as an all-white alternative to the lascivious and immoral "black" music that became popular with the rise of jazz in mainstream America. In other words, it was racist on purpose, from the start.

Country Music got its start via what were called "Clear Channel Stations" -- local radio whose programming was a direct reaction to the stuff New York media was pumping out (classical, highbrow) and what was available on jazz radio (black music). The leading figure in that was a man named George Hay -- the creator of the Grand Ol' Opry.

Hay was trying to create, and create is the key point, a radio program and a style of music that appealed to the predominantly rural and small town audience. So he was really juxtaposing the collection of string band musicians and odd performers from Vaudeville who would show up in the early years of the Opry, against this vision of high culture being broadcast over the New York based radio station.

Hay played what you could call the Hillbilly card. He gave his popular performers names that would sound more authentically Southern and rural: The Fruit Jar Drinkers, The Gully Jumpers. Dr. Humphrey Bate, an actual Vanderbilt-trained physician, and his Augmented String Orchestra became Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters.

...George Hay is there presenting a manufactured rusticality that they find reassuring and comforting and fits in with really what many see as their own self identity."

And that identity was white. Kyriakoudes says Hay took a biracial musical tradition and whitewashed it, creating what would come to be called country music.

"The down home rural card was a good card to play," says sociologist Richard Peterson. "Because there was such fear of what was happening in the cities. There was so much race mixing, there was so much jazz, there was all kinds of degradation in music. Here was a way of finding a pure, unadulterated, American music that came out of an Anglo-Saxon background. They made up a whole bunch of stuff."

That quote is from this really fascinating American RadioWorks article about the history of radio in America. Read it. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there. But for our purposes the most fascinating thing is the power of radio to foster a culture of white music for white people who were, plainly, afraid of and alienated by the black man and his music. That's where "country music" comes from.

And you can argue that rap has racist undertones (or overtones). But country music was there first, just as the white culture was there first. (There being the public media space.) And it was there to draw a color line. According the Mr. Hays of the world, on their side of the line are "traditional values. Faith in God, devotion to family, hard work, devotion to country." And white people (and Richard Nixon). On the other side of the line is "rhythm and blues and [the black] race. Written by people who didn't know the English language. Didn't know how to spell, didn't know how to play but could accompany himself on the gee-tar and so forth."

Hay's little show that went on the become the Grand Ol' Opry attracted a lot of fellow travellers so steeped in a kind of racial populism that they may not have even realized just how much harmful racism there was in the air. Like, perhaps, LZ Granderson's ordinary American country music fans who also like NASCAR. Mr. Granderson:
I conducted a not-so-scientific experiment the other day. I approached about 15 people of color, of various ages, on the subways of Manhattan. I told them I was working on a column for this Web site and wanted to know the first word that came to their minds when I said the following words:

"NASCAR" and "country music."

Every single one of them said hillbilly, redneck or dumb.

Again, this wasn't a scientific poll. But still, I was hoping for a little more diversity from the answers, especially given the diversity of New York City. Back where I come from, tolerance isn't race- or age-specific. And unfortunately, it seems every year around this time that I am reminded the same is true of intolerance.

That's the tricky thing about stereotypes. Granderson's upset because, as a fan of country music he objects to being tarred with the hillbilly, redneck, racist brush. He weeps crocodile tears because even in New York, that notoriously liberal den of iniquity, he can't find a black man to say "Kenny Chesney and Kyle Bush!" when he baits them with his little test. "Intolerance!" he cries, triumphantly. Or perhaps it was, "I'm a victim!"

Unfortunately for LZ, racism in this country isn't the kind of thing most people are willing to "tolerate." Maybe all country music fans and artists aren't racist, just as all NASCAR fans and teams aren't. But the fact is that country music has a lot to live down in that department. A lot. Like its entire raison d'etre. (Oops! French! I must be some kind of cheese-eating surrender monkey.)

This started out to be just a simple rant but since I've gone this far I'll take it one more step. At the bottom of Granderson's argument is a more insidious logic. LZ thinks he's found some deep hypocrisy in finding counter-racism in what is actually the correct identification of vestigal racism in country music. Conservatives of all stripes employ this logic all the time:

"You say everyone can believe what they want!" goes the logic. "But you're against [insert exclusive belief system here], so you don't really want that! You just want people to think like you do. You're a hypocrite. Because you're a hypocrite, I can go on believing and doing whatever I like that you want me to stop."

Progressives (and liberal New Yorkers) promote a vision for a pluralistic society. The mistake Granderson (and more virulent people) make is to think that a pluralist really claims that anyone can act in any way they believe is right. WRONG.

A pluralistic society can tolerate any idea, except any idea whose central aim is the exclusion of every other idea. That's why evangelical religion comes under the progressive gun so often. Evangelicals demand the right to tell you how to live. If you don't happen to agree with them, then they'll pass a law to make your life illegal. Racists ultimately want to exclude other races.

In a progressive, pluralistic society, you can be a racist. But you can't act as a racist by attempting to exclude other races from the public sphere. You can be an evangelical christian. But you can't act to exclude gays (for example) from the public sphere. You can believe that there is no such thing as global warming. But you can't act to exclude science from the public sphere.

So why, Mr. Granderson, should a black man attempt to "tolerate" any music hatched out of a wish that he had never been born? Why should he make the effort to prove to himself that all country music fans or NASCAR fans are not dumb hillbilly rednecks? Especially when it's transparent that the France family has sold as much NASCAR to as many white folks as will buy it and are trying (and failing) to expand their audience to blacks not out of some kind of epiphany (or "growth" as Eddie Montgomery might call it), but because they want that dollar?

You can love NASCAR, Mr. Granderson, but you can't force me to like it. (Four left turns. That's a motorsport?)

As to the fact that the radio stations who peddled this all-white family values claptrap were generically called "Clear Channel Stations?" Well. Isn't that a delicious coincidence.
There's a lot of people saying that the second that I started saying, 'I think we gotta get Bush out of the presidency,' that's when Clear Channel banged my ass outta here. Then I find out that Clear Channel is such a big contributor to President Bush, and in bed with the whole Bush administration, I'm going, 'Maybe that's why I was thrown off: because I don't like the way the country is leaning too much to the religious right.'


G.C. said...

I'm a little bit confused by your post. Were you saying that the Gay black man who write that is a "conservative racist"?

G.C. said...


Jim said...


Yeah, I have to laugh at myself. I found out who he is just this week.

After thinking about it a bit, well, it doesn't change what I think about his column. The column is still "special-pleading" for two groups whose history is specifically racist. Even though LZ is black and gay, I would suggest he check his history before jumping to write-off the remnant bigotry that still finds a refuge in both NASCAR and country music circles.

Granderson may be hyper-conscious of the significance of BHM (something I didn't believe when I first wrote the post). But his column betrays a lack of knowledge about the [specifically racist] history of country music.

And the logic he deploys to "catch" fellow black New Yorkers is precisely as I described. It's too bad that someone whose ethnicity and sexuality often put him on the other side of that fallacious riposte should choose to employ it himself.

My argument--whether LZ was white or black, gay or straight--is that racism exists in NASCAR and country music for a very good reason. History tells me that. I'm not willing to cut those two pastimes any slack. In fact, I do hold them to a higher standard, given their history. I think if Granderson were fully cognizant of that history, he'd be less inclined to whinge about their ongoing association with racism in the popular mind.

In fact, Granderson makes hay out his race and sexuality to increase the impact of arguments based in the logical fallacy that I laid out. I doubt if he'd be so willing to do that if he had a firmer grasp on history.

Still, you're right. I thought he was a white guy when I wrote it.

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