Allow me to begin by saying that I did not want to write this article. Truthfully, I didn’t even really want to listen to this song.
As I attempted to do so for the first time, I exited the browser window halfway through, wondering, “Who could possibly like this?!” and then moved on with my day. Unfortunately, the answer to this question did not elude me for long as Joyner Lucas' “I’m Not Racist” video was immediately shared by no fewer than five of my Facebook friends, commended by several people I follow on Twitter and lauded as “important” by various online publications.
Had I missed something?
I tried listening to the song once more—this time more attentively and to completion—yet, in spite of itself, it somehow ended even more egregiously than it began. I felt like I was going crazy, like Bart in that episode of The Simpsons where his entire family starts to like Sideshow Bob. “THERE ARE SO MANY OBVIOUS REASONS TO DISLIKE THIS,” I thought, overwhelmed by my confusion about the song’s viral success. (As of this writing, the video has been played over 10 million times.) Less than 48 hours later, "I'm Not Racist" started to rise on the iTunes Hip-Hop/Rap chart, and I realized that perhaps these reasons were not as obvious as I initially thought.
I genuinely respect what Joyner Lucas was trying to do here. Attempting to present a solution to the deeply entrenched problem of racial division in America is no easy feat for anyone, let alone a rapper seeking to do so within the constraints of a rap song. If I were to evaluate it based on ambition alone, this song would get full marks.
Unfortunately, I can’t praise Lucas’s ambition in a vacuum, I must also look at the way in which he attempted to realize this ambition. And, to this end, it’s difficult to understate how much he missed the mark. Listening to "I'm Not Racist" feels a bit like watching a football kicker attempt an 80-yard field goal, but then flub the kick entirely. I can’t help but admire the confidence leading up to the attempt, but I also can’t praise a kick that traveled 12 yards before ultimately resulting in a turnover.
The song begins with a rap verse about racial politics from the perspective of a Trump supporter. This particular Trump supporter is a garishly unsympathetic white man, who among other things, calls black people the n-word, minimizes the longstanding effects of slavery, and believes that black men are killed by the police because they wear gold teeth. He makes no attempt to blanket these offensive views in flawed statistical data or circuitous dog-whistles, he simply recites these ideas candidly, speaking in a way that is so raw that Ann Coulter herself might blush at the lack of filter.
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After three minutes of such uncut bigotry, this verse takes a hard left turn and concludes abruptly with, “There’s two sides to every story, I wish I knew yours.” With this one throwaway line, Lucas asks us to believe that a character who says things like, “All you care about is rappin’ and stuntin’ and bein’ ratchet, and that’s the n---er within you” is also open-minded enough to embrace the validity of different perspectives. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble here, but there is no precedent for this man in the real world.
If Lucas had sketched such a broad caricature in an attempt to illuminate the absurdity of his beliefs, I’d be far less inclined to criticize this song so harshly. Yet, it would seem that Lucas wants listeners to treat this man’s cartoonish views—much like the black man who delivers the song’s second verse does—as empathy-warranting positions that require serious rebuttals. At this point, Lucas’ conditions for producing racial harmony appear to involve the following: (1) bigots who possess an openness to new ideas, and (2) black people who are willing to empathize with the hatred of their own race. At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, I’d say that orchestrating diplomatic conversations between individuals who match these respective descriptions seems a tad unrealistic.
Even if there were an abundance of people like this floating around America, Lucas’ suggestion that they should sit across from one another and discuss their differences as peers suggests a problematic false equivalency between the legitimacy of their viewpoints. Hypothetically speaking, black people have the capacity to speak from personal experience about a struggle shaped by centuries of policy-driven oppression, while bigots can speak only from a place of unsubstantiated prejudice. The former might recite facts about the insidious effects of Jim Crow laws and real-estate redlining, while the latter might counter with, “Well, that’s what you get for wearing your pants so low.” It would be like asking James Baldwin to treat a Tiki torch-carrying white-supremacist as his intellectual equal. The mere suggestion is offensive.
In fairness to Lucas, I should acknowledge the near impossibility of writing a song that tackles such a heady topic with any degree of subtlety. Somewhere, buried beneath a plethora of confusing writing choices, sits a fairly innocuous central thesis: the path to bridging the racial divide in America is through civil conversations with people who possess opposing viewpoints. He’s certainly not alone in positing this belief, either. In a recent New York Timesinterview, JAY-Z echoed a similar sentiment, stating “The great thing about Donald Trump being president is now we’re forced to have the dialogue […] he’s provided the platform for us to have the conversation.”
The most glaring problem with this position, of course, is that it presupposes that these conversations have historically been rare or hard to come by. For better or for worse, these conversations have been happening everywhere I look for many years now, in YouTube comments, on Reddit threads, and in Twitter @ replies. To put it gently, they are generally unproductive. Even in the rare circumstances where all participants start off with the best of intentions, their exchanges almost always end up being incendiary, antagonistic, and broadly detrimental.
I don’t fault Joyner Lucas or JAY-Z for being idealistic that this can change. I too would like to possess such blind optimism about the alleviation of racial strife in America. Yet, for many reasons that fall outside the purview of an article about a heavy-handed rap song—informational echo chambers, identity formation, etc.—I’m far more skeptical. I’ve seen the real-life version of the “I’m Not Racist” conversation play out a million times already, and the cumulative effect of this has left me disheartened. Even just watching this recent clip, where Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer argues with British journalist Gary Yonge that African people definitively benefited from the slave trade, leaves me devoid of hope.
Credit where it’s due, if Joyner Lucas’ ultimate goal with “I’m Not Racist” was to start a dialogue, he certainly accomplished this mission. Even as I write this, I’m currently engaging in this dialogue, and I’m far from the only writer to have penned a longwinded article doing so. Granted, it may not be the dialogue Joyner Lucas intended for us to engage in, but it’s a dialogue nonetheless.
Hypothetically speaking, if someone were to share this article on Facebook, they’d be engaging in a dialogue about this article, which engaged in a dialogue about the dialogue depicted in this song. This is all starting to get a bit confusing and there are no easy answers here. I guess I can now see why it’s tempting to end, much like “I’m Not Racist” did, with a completely unearned hug.