Who is Daryl Davis and what can we learn from him?
The first paragraph of his Wikipedia bio gives a pretty cut-and-dry description of who he is:
Daryl Davis (born March 26, 1958) is an American R&B and blues musician, activist, author, actor, and bandleader. He is best known for his work concerning the Ku Klux Klan. His efforts to fight racism, in which, as an African-American, he has engaged with members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), have convinced a number of Klansmen to leave and denounce the KKK. Known for his energetic style of boogie-woogie piano, Davis has played with such musicians as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, B. B. King, and Bruce Hornsby.
I discovered Daryl Davis after I heard his interview on the Joe Rogan podcast where he discusses the first time he met the Imperial Wizard (the highest-ranking Klan leader, in Klan speak) of the Maryland chapter of the KKK, Roger Kelly. As a Black man, most people would think he’s insane for trying to meet with KKK members—let alone the Imperial Wizard—but this is just what he’s done, driven by a single question:
“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
He wrote a book about his experiences with neo-Nazis, skinheads, White supremacists, and other hate groups in a book titled “Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.” I read the book and believe that his work represents a unique and powerful approach to moving humanity forward.
The book is currently out of print, but the few booksellers that have used copies are willing to part with theirs for a hefty sum. I found a relatively cheap copy for $150. I didn’t mind paying the price, and it was well worth it.
The bulk of the book is an autobiographical narrative, but the afterward is Daryl’s reflections on race relations, clarification of his motives for his mingling with the Klan, and his hopes for the future. I wrote Mr. Davis and got his permission to include parts of the afterward in this post to break down and contribute my thoughts here.
1) The best way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them first
“Before I began my journey, I realized in seeking out the driving forces behind the racism found in members of the Ku Klux Klan, I would hear a lot of things that would bother and sometimes anger me. However, I decided to meet those who held views opposed to my own and get their side of the story. I did at times, after obtaining their confidence and allowing them to freely express their views, venture my opinions.
Some Klanspeople I met were persuaded by my opinions and others were not. Nevertheless, I believe the best way to reach the hearts and minds of those who oppose you is to allow them to be themselves.”
2) Fighting fire with fire only creates a bigger fire
“Some who, like me, believe in tolerance between people still say, ‘I hate the Klan! Don’t you hate them? How can you stand being around those people?’
I reply that ‘hate’ is a powerful word. Coincidentally, people who hate the Klan are doing exactly what they are accusing the Klan of doing—hating.”
3) You can disagree without being disrespectful
“I remained honest with each and every Klan member I met, and most importantly, I remained honest with myself. I did not pretend to be anything other than what I am, and though I allowed each Klansman to know where I stood, I never forced my beliefs upon anyone. Over a period of time, this, I believe, became the basis for their trust and respect for me.
The idea of being friends with a person whose belief system you despise sounds like an impossibility. I believe I have demonstrated that it is indeed very possible for two diametrically opposed human beings to learn and accept enough learning about each other to co-exist without strife. And while I was learning about the Klan and its members. I was also passively teaching them without forcing myself or my beliefs and they responded in kind.”
When you can disagree with the idea without attacking the person who delivers that idea, only then can real progress can be made.
We tend to forget that although we are the summation of our ideas and our actions motivated based on those ideas, we don’t feel attached to the words we say like we do our egos.
For example, there’s a big difference between the reaction you receive when you call what someone said “stupid” versus when you call that person “stupid”. You can make great progress with a person if you learn to criticize their thoughts, not their person.
I’m not saying that it’s easy to separate the message from the messenger, but I believe it’s necessary if we ever hope to improve how we communicate. Furthermore, you stand a much better chance of influencing the messenger if you can keep him from becoming defensive, and the fastest way to make someone defensive is to attack them
4) Someone has to make the first move in good faith
“We are all human beings, though we may have some physical, cultural, sexual, and religious differences. Often these differences seem monumental to those of us who are only accustomed to being around our own kind. We are ignorant in understanding that these differences are only superficial. Though we are influenced by our backgrounds and our environments, as human beings, we are fundamentally the same.
I am not trying to downplay the Klan’s atrocities, past or present; however, after more than 130 years of violence and hatred, I felt it was time we get to know one another on a social basis and not under the cover of darkness.”
If there is one part of Daryl’s approach that people have an issue with, it’s the fact that he has friendly interactions with an organization that is notorious for inflicting harm on minorities, Blacks especially. It is not the place of this article to convince anyone that his path is the best path. In fact, he often says so himself that his method is just one method, and he hopes that people will continue to improve it in the future.
Forgiveness plays a major role in our ability to move forward and eradicate hate.
[In this article, I discuss several methods for forgiving people and problems with the world.]
While I don’t recall Daryl using “forgiveness” in his book or articles, his approach is in the spirit of forgiveness. He’s aware of the Klan’s former atrocities, but he is willing to give them a fresh look once they hold themselves accountable for their actions.
He’s gotten many to leave the Ku Klux Klan and likely softened the hearts and perspectives of thousands of others. These conversions are significant in the short term but are truly game-changing in the long run. Every person who leaves the Klan does 4 things simultaneously. They:
- Reduce the number of soldiers in the army of hate.
- Become an advocate for the forces against hate.
- Make themselves a role model for anyone looking to leave hate behind.
- Stop hate from spreading to the next generation.
There are two paths to eliminate racial discord and hate: one is destruction of one side. The other is forgiveness. Most people don’t want the former to happen, even if they’re on the other side. However, we seem clueless about how to proceed with the latter.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you forget the wrongs that have been done. It means you stop trying to exact equal or greater damage in return because you realize that it will not undo the damage done. It will only perpetuate more in the future.
5) Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds hate. Hate breeds destruction.
“It is fear that is instilled in us through ignorance that often breeds hate. Hatred, if not kept in check, will sometimes escalate to destruction. We want to do away with things we don’t like, especially if they are things we fear. It comes down to getting rid of the source of our fear before it gets rid of us.
Putting aside fear and learning to present myself in a non-threatening manner allowed me access to some of the innermost workings of the Klan organizations and the minds of their members. Of course, this did not happen overnight, but over time, doors that had been locked to all Blacks and closed to many Whites, were opened. I have learned through my unique odyssey to discover the roots of racism, that any non-violent form of communication is a mutual, positive way to exchange information even if there is disagreement.”
The driving question behind Daryl’s quest has been “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”
Throughout the book, Daryl recounts several times where he’s the first Black person with whom a Ku Klux Klan member had a conversation, let alone shared a drink. This is important to take note of.
Many members of the Klan were raised in places where they never interacted with someone who looks different from them. This isolation makes it difficult for a person to get an accurate assessment of the reality of things because their formative experiences are filtered and incomplete. Depending on that filter’s environment and the incomplete information narrative, an isolated environment can become a hotbed for racial extremism.
I would imagine that this is why extremism is much more common in poorer, less educated portions of rural America.In fact, an American county’s racial diversity, income, and education level are leading predictors of whether an organized hate group is present there.
When life is hard (as it tends to be for anyone poor or uneducated), it’s easier to blame your problems on an entire group you aren’t exposed to. If all you know is what you’re told or see portrayed in the media, it’s not surprising that you eventually come to hate an entire group of people.
6) Acknowledge the similarities before you address the differences
“Each party has now found common ground on which to agree. It becomes obvious that all people want many of the same things; child protection, safety, and awareness in the community and school system, etc. When opposing forces see that these goals can be achieved without short-changing themselves or the other party, fear begins to subside.
The discussion can then turn to, ‘What can WE do to achieve these goals?’ Things are accomplished more quickly if WE work together. Once this point is reached, and each party becomes involved with the other for a common cause, respect, trust, and friendship may ensue and former bottlenecks are often shattered or are at least unblocked.”
There’s an awesome part in Daryl’s documentary “Accidental Courtesy” where Daryl describes Chuck Berry as “an unwritten civil rights hero. Before any other, there was his music. When Chuck Berry came out there playing that Rock’n Roll, White and Black kids could not sit still. They bounced up out of their chairs, knocked over the ropes, and began boogying and dancing in the aisles together for the first time in American history.”
It’s hard for the division to exist where common interests are found. I don’t mean this to be interpreted as music, sports, or military service are places where racism is non-existent. This is far from accurate.
But if you can get people who are obsessed with how they’re different from you to take notice of the ways you’re alike, you have dramatically increased the chance that you’ll find common ground.
However, the goal isn’t merely to find common ground. The goal, as ambitious as it sounds, is to abolish racism. At the very least, the goal is to develop an effective protocol that gets people to willingly change their perspective to one of inclusion rather than exclusion. Finding common ground is just a starting point.
The inevitable result of focusing on our differences i conflict. Focusing on our similarities and connecting with them buys us time to see one another as more alike than different. We all want the same things and enjoy the same things. We only forget this when we become obsessed with the superficial differences that only run skin deep.
7) Time and exposure are the only ways to eliminate racism
“Sometimes my approach raised eyebrows. Some people who don’t know me very well angrily questioned my endeavors criticized my methods and suggested that I was selling out.
However, I have Klan robes, given to me voluntarily, hanging in my closet. Ku Klux Klan members have invited me to their homes for dinner. And some members have quit the Klan as a result of getting to know and respect me and my non-racist beliefs.
Time and exposure is a great healer—perhaps the only healer for irrational fear and hatred. Laws can be made to take people out of the Klan, but laws cannon be made to take the Klan mentality out of people. The best way we can learn to respect each other is to know each other.”
When people talk about fighting racism, they often forget that they’re fighting a war on a physical and a mental front.
The physical battle is the easiest to fight. We can create anti-discrimination mandates, directives, and laws that make treating people differently based on their race illegal. However, these are only as effective as the progress made on the mental front.
Abolishing Jim Crow laws and passing the Civil Rights Act didn’t erase a racist mindset. The problem with changing a mindset is that nothing can force it to happen. In fact, when people feel like they’re being forced to do or think a certain way, they tend to go in the opposite direction as a matter of principle.
Mindset and perspective change cannot be motivated by external decree.
Daryl is changing mindsets via exposure and time. With that said, during the screening of Accidental Courtesy, Daryl says about mindset change “While it’s a lot better than having the government force something down your throat, we’ve been changing mindsets a little too slowly.”
Perhaps it’s impossible to change a whole generation of mindsets faster than one person at a time. Still, the people who criticize the speed and inefficiency of this method are forgetting something important. One person who leaves a hate organization is one less person who spreads hate. This person often breaks the chain of hatred that would be passed down to their family.
Maybe there is a faster way to change mindsets. Maybe there isn’t. Regardless of how you feel about Daryl’s methods, this is a lot better than doing nothing.
8) The root of racism and prejudice is low self-esteem
“There are people who feel that racism and those who propagate it should be ignored. They think that giving such beliefs any type of attention will only promote them. I believe some things can be ignored and will eventually go away, like the teaser or bully we have all encountered in grade school. However, I do not feel that racists fit into that category.
Racism is similar to cancer; unless treated, it will spread and eventually consume the whole body. If the afflicted body procreates after being attacked with such a deadly malady, whether it be cancer or racism, there is a good chance that any offspring will be exposed to it as well. And the terrible process will begin all over again in a new generation
Racism and prejudice, however overt or subtle, are rampant in our world today. They are most common in those with poor self-esteem. Until people feel positively about themselves, they will look for someone else to step on in order to negatively gain what they cannot positively achieve.”
9) Categories create racial division, pt. 1
“First and foremost, I consider myself an American. If further description is warranted, then I am a Black-American. Over the years, there have been many acceptable terms: Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, People of Color, and so on. As far as being politically correct, I don’t think we will see the NAACP—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—‚changing its name to the NAAAAP—the National Association for the Advancement of African-American People.
I do not find the terms “Negro,” “Colored” or “Black” to be offensive. In fact, I prefer them to be used in descriptions of me or in my descriptions of other members of my race if race must be distinguished or is being discussed. To me, an African-American is a person who, in a matter of speaking, recently emigrated from Africa to the United States.
My ancestors, like the ancestors of most Blacks in this country, got off a boat many centuries ago, thus making the nationality of their descendants just plain American and their race Black. I feel the same way about White Americans who have been here for generations and see no reason to call them Euro-Americans.”
As long as we stress the idea of a separate identity for people with the same national origin, we create a new problem: we see ourselves as separate segmented subgroups rather than as a collective whole.
In Accidental Courtesy, Daryl says “At one time, we [Black people] had no history. No Black history in this country. All we had was American history, which may as well had been called White history.” Daryl has elaborated on this point further in his interview on the Joe Rogan podcast:
*“One of the things that will help us to advance into the 21st century—because we are behind the times—is that we need to, at this point, get rid of Black History Month. I know a lot of people are going to freak out, but let me explain. For the longest time, we needed Black History Month because Black history was not being taught in our schools. *
So we fought and got it. The problem is that it’s only one month and we study the same half a dozen people. So you’re constantly reinforcing that there were only 6 or 7 black people in this country who ever did something. Women’s History Month is March and then it’s gone. Take these things out of those months and put them where they belong, under the umbrella of American history, and teach them all year long.”
At one point, Black History Month served as a bridge to Black culture and history, and it was a necessary bridge. Now, it acts as a barrier. It not only further separates, it inadvertently and ironically downplays the role of Blacks in American history.
10) Categories create racial division, pt. 2
“Though at times, since my journey into the heart of the KKK the charge has been hurled against me, let me emphatically make the statement that I am in no way ashamed of my African heritage.
Unlike most Black Americans, I lived in Africa for ten years and am very glad to have descended from such a great continent and magnificent people. However, I long for the day we can all just call ourselves ‘Americans’ without any racial, ethnic, or origin prefix. This declassification will surely cut down the feeling of isolation we all are currently experiencing in our society.
This is not to say that we, whatever our heritage, need to forget where we came from. We should learn about individual backgrounds and acknowledge them by sharing our histories with others, both in and out of our individual races so that everyone may learn and not let his or her heritage be forgotten.
In this country, with the exception of the first Americans, the Native American-Indians, we are all composites. America cannot be defined as consisting of any one type of people. It is comprised of people whose history reaches to every corner of this planet. That is America’s real strength if only all citizens could recognize it.”
Daryl has been given the robes of many former KKK members who decided to leave the Klan due to getting to know him. People ask him why doesn’t he burn the robes, to which he replies:
“As shameful as it is, this is a part of American history. You don’t burn our history, regardless of the good, the bad, and the ugly—and the Ku Klux Klan is as American as baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”
One of the reasons we study history is to make sure that we don’t repeat it. If we try to erase parts of our history that we don’t like or agree with, then we remove the lesson and set ourselves up for disaster.
11) The problem with racial pride
“I believe one must strive to make the world a better place by accomplishing those things that will benefit our future rather than trying to reactivate the past. These may be accomplishments to benefit humankind, such as discovering a cure for a deadly disease or an invention that could be used around the world. Or these may be accomplishments of personal significance such as learning to walk again after a debilitating accident or winning first place in a pie-baking contest. These victories are the things we must all work for and earn.
I pray for the time when people focus on showing each other what they are capable of accomplishing, rather than concentrating on what color they are or from where their family originated. In such an era, we will gain personal respect from our deeds and the pre-designated color of our skin won’t matter. We should never be ashamed of what is God-given, such as our skin color. We can only be proud of what we become through our own given endeavors.”
Consider the definition of pride:
A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
There is a big difference between not being ashamed of your race and being proud of it.
No one should ever be ashamed of the immutable traits they were born with. This means that you should never be ashamed of your sex, height, face, race, or whatever you were born with. However, you enter dangerous territory when you become proud of something that you did nothing to attain and is simply a part of who you are.
This is dangerous because pride is supposed to stem from accomplishments. If we start to view our race as an accomplishment, the subtle implication is that everyone not born that way is inferior. This is because pride, by its very nature, is a zero-sum game. Allow me to explain.
If we break events down into their outcomes and the processes that lead to them, people can be proud of either how something turned out (the outcome) or the effort they put forth in pursuit of an outcome (the process). Your race isn’t something you put effort into choosing, so that eliminates the process aspect. This leaves the outcome.
If you’re proud of being White, it implies that it’s an accomplishment no one else could accomplish. This is the same for being proud of being Black. If you derive your self-esteem and sense of importance from something you had no control over, there is a bigger problem: you are ashamed of who you are, and the only way to find something to be proud of is to latch on to your race.
This reminds me of something Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist, said in his book “The Cure For Hate”:
“Shame is self-dehumanization, whereas hate and racism are the external projections of that self-dehumanization.”
12) Improving the blueprint for race relations
“This book is by no means a how-to manual providing the solution to the racial plague on our planet—it is but one man’s pioneering approach. **Now, I can only hope that someone after me improves upon my method by using it as a springboard to launch a rocket that will soar into the future in the quest to improve race relations. **
Perhaps my experiences will shed more understanding and others will be inspired to seek out and eradicate racial prejudice with education, not only the academic type one receives in school, but the kind we attain when we learn about our fellow human beings from one-on-one, non-confrontational encounters. It is my dream, that through this new discourse, in a new millennium of brotherly love and friendship, we will overcome hatred and prejudice.”
Daryl’s method, by his admission, isn’t perfect. He doesn’t tout it as the cure for racism and hatred. Many Klan members stay in the Klan despite their interactions with Daryl. There is also the perception that some Blacks have of him as a sell-out.
One interaction from the documentary Accidental Courtesy stands out to me.
Daryl meets with three Baltimore Black Lives Matter activists (J.C. Faulk,Kwame Rose, & Tariq Touré) who raise some points about the approach and efficacy of his method. Before a resolution can be met, things get out of hand, and the parties never continue talking.
Later, during the premiere of the documentary, Kwame and Daryl are on much better terms because they got a chance to talk and connect. Though Kwame doesn’t necessarily agree with Daryl’s approach, they have a much better understanding of one another.
This interaction is important to note because it demonstrates the crux of Daryl’s approach. Daryl wants to change the mindsets of people. He is humble enough to recognize that although a lot of legal change has occurred, our mindsets are changing too slowly.
The solution, whatever it is, won’t be with Daryl’s method or activism alone. It won’t be through new legislation and initiatives to dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism. But Daryl is doing what he knows best and making a dent in the scourge of racism.
“Well I would hope that by the time I’m gone, things like this would not be as prevalent. But, if they are, perhaps this film will encourage others to do the same and do a better job than I’ve been able to do.”