By LZ Granderson
Page 2

I can't remember the first song I heard by Kenny Chesney, but I do know the one that made me a lifelong fan -- "Back Where I Come From."

"In the town where I was raised
The clock ticks and the cattle graze
Time passed with amazing grace
Back where I come from …"

That song resonates with me because even though I was born and raised in Detroit, I spent a lot of my childhood summers in rural Mississippi. I had more aunts and uncles than I could count, and everyone else in the town was somehow a cousin. To me, Chesney's lyrics don't speak of a race or gender or anything like that. They speak of an experience. In many ways, the time I spent running through the fields of Mississippi was as instrumental in shaping the way I see the world as the time I spent running through the streets up north. "Back Where I Come From" captures that feeling.

Kyle Petty
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
NASCAR driver Kyle Petty signs autographs for fans at the Sound & Speed event in Nashville.

I've been reminiscing about those good old days recently because we're heading into NASCAR season -- or as I like to call it, country-bashing time.

While the NBA continues its effort to purge itself of any hip-hop connection -- to distance itself from the negative, stereotypical images surrounding the culture and music -- NASCAR unabashedly embraces its relationship with country music. And to that I say, amen.

Just last week in Nashville, the Great American Country channel held its annual Sound & Speed festival, where top artists and drivers mingle with fans in celebration of the upcoming season.

Yes, mullets were sported. There was a lot of domestic beer drinking. And a couple of people at the event probably had a shotgun in the back of their pickup.

But were there any card-carrying members of the KKK present? Who knows? That's hard to say when the only information you have about people -- any person -- is what sport they follow or what music they listen to.

Yet people say it anyway, comfortably linking NASCAR with every disparaging image of country life they can think of.

It doesn't take a Cornell West to see the underlying racism involved when NBA players and hip-hop artists are categorized as thugs and gangsters. But, for some reason, it is still acceptable to make hurtful redneck jokes about the fans of country music and NASCAR. That's yet another example of the sociological double talk that indirectly feeds into this country's festering racial tension.

White privilege is still very much a tangible element in our culture. But so is this unspoken rule that allows the disenfranchised to use the racial majority as a metaphorical punching bag. Of course, the rationale for this double standard is that our society is systematically structured to ensure the success of white people. I don't disagree with that. But does that mean the only way to overcome racism is to be racist? I find that so-called solution unacceptable.

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.

Eddie Montgomery, of the country group Montgomery Gentry, says it bothers him that people associate his music with the nation's racist past. In fact, Eddie and his music partner, Troy, made headlines late last year with their single "Some People Change." In the video, there is a young man who turns his back on the racist views handed down to him by his father.

Eddie Montgomery
AP Photo/Tim Larsen
Eddie Montgomery wishes people understood country music a little better.

"There are bad people in country just like there are bad people in hip-hop and everywhere else," says Eddie, who's also NASCAR fan. "But I grew up believing that music had no color. In our band, it was whether or not you could relate to the experiences we were singing about, and could you play the music.

"People who say country music is just a bunch of twangy good old boys just don't know what they're talking about because the music's grown just as the country's grown."

Craig Morgan, who had a Top 40 hit last year with "A Little Bit of Life," says he finds it amusing that people think country artists and NASCAR fans are uneducated and racist.

"Just because someone likes something you don't like doesn't mean that your hobbies or interests are better or worse than anyone else's," he says. "It just means it's different."

Like Montgomery, Morgan acknowledges that there is some truth to the general perception of country music and NASCAR, but adds, "That doesn't mean that's all there is."

"It makes it easy for people to put folks in boxes," he says. "It doesn't matter to them if it's the right box or not."

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.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." LZ can be reached at