Southern white men don’t usually drive racial dialogue. For as long as race has riven America, they have been depicted more often as the problem than the solution.

So after country music star Brad Paisley released his new song “Accidental Racist” this week, what happened next was hardly surprising: days of widespread criticism about his attempt to detail the challenges facing a “white man from the Southland” and his recruitment of LL Cool J to rap a black perspective.

The song sparked a predictable blaze this week on TV, talk radio and the Internet. USA Today asked if it was an “epic fail.” At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates titled his analysis, “‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist.” More than a few ridiculed it as “the worst song ever.”

Some elements of the outcry, however, raise less predictable questions: Where does naiveté turn into ignorance, and then into racism? What is the basis of modern Southern pride? And, possibly most important, should we grade racial attitudes on a curve?

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