Despite being sorely tempted, I haven’t weighed in on the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J saga, in part because I’m only remotely informed about Paisley’s prior work and history (I don’t much listen to contemporary country music, though I love a lot of the old stuff). But I am interested in legitimate and illegitimate ways of expressing “southern pride,” Paisley’s express motive in recording “Accidential Racist,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates hits one important perspective on this matter quite squarely:

Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King’s birthday, to celebrate a Southerner’s contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner’s Light In August, and celebrate the South’s immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.

Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.

Paisely is using the term “southerner” when he actually means “white southerner,” and a particular kind of “white southerner” at that. It’s obviously an old habit for white southerners (I’ve fallen into it occasionally, but I hope not lately), for reasons that are very difficult to separate from racism. If you really think about it for a moment, how could you define “southern” in a way that excludes African-Americans? They represent not only a huge formative element of southern culture, but its extension outside the region in a wave more powerful and enduring than all the NASCAR races and country music and megachurches and conservative politics and Paula Deen recipes (you know, the usual tokens of southern cultural imperialism) put together.

If Brad Paisley wants to get more particular in his cultural cri de couer (or as he might call it, a rebel yell), he could talk about being a “cracker” (which I do pretty often), or an Appalachian or a hillbilly or a descendent of dirt farmers, or whatever applies, and you know what? You can do all of that without the Confederate Battle Flag, a symbol that continues to enrage me because it telescopes southern history into four years of dismal failure in a bad cause, which then plunged the whole region into grinding poverty and moral squalor for another century. For God’s sake (if not your own), let it go, boys. If you can’t exhibit “southern pride” without symbols of racism, you are insulting white as well as black southern folk for real. We’re more, and better, than that.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.