When I started this week of offensive Randy Newman songs, I knew I had a lot to choose from. But I had one song in particular in mind: “Rednecks” off his Good Old Boys album. The narrator is a redneck and he shows himself to be bigoted in the most offensive way. It starts talking about how the segregationist Lester Maddox was on television with “some smart-ass New York Jew.” As he’s discussing his own people, he notes that men go to LSU, “Went in dumb — come out dumb too.” And then there is the refrain, “We are keeping the niggers down.”
Now this is presented in the context of it being the way that northerners think of southerners. But he isn’t saying it’s wrong. He isn’t saying that the south isn’t like that. He’s saying that the north is hypocritical. The bridge is devastating. He says that the north has “set the nigger free.” And he provides a long list of how the African American is free, “Yes he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City.” And it goes on that way. The song could be a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, if the song weren’t such a muddle with every offensive word that was handy.
The Problem Isn’t the Rednecks
“Rednecks” was released in 1974. Since that time, the kind of overt, impolite, racism of the singer exhibits has mostly become a thing of the past. It is so much a thing of the past that even Sean Hannity finds it unacceptable. At the same time, mass incarceration of African Americans has become a far bigger issue. Words do matter. But they only go so far. We’ve created a society that is largely polite to African Americans. But not one that offers them opportunity.
We should have spent less time worrying about the rednecks and more time worrying about the system of racism our society is built upon.