Talking, without violence, to bridge the racial divide

By sitting down with white extremists, Daryl Davis has talked at least 200 of them to quit the Klan and other violent racist groups.
(Photo courtesy of Daryl Davis)

Meet Daryl Davis, a 63-year-old Black musician who has a collection of Ku Klux Klan robes, swastikas and other symbols of racism and white supremacy. He received them from whites who abandoned the Klan after he took the time to listen to their beliefs and talk about the need for tolerance and equality.

“He hangs out with Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazi and chips away at their racism,” writes Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times.

“His odyssey arose from curiosity about racism, including about an attack he suffered,” Kristoff says. “When Davis was 10 years old, he says, a group of white people hurled bottles, soda cans and rocks at him.”

“I was incredulous,” Davis told the journalist. “My 10-year-old brain could not process the idea that someone who had never seen me, who had never spoken to me, who knew nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the color of my skin.”

“How can you hate me,” he adds, “when you don’t even know me?”

After graduating from Howard University, Davis joined a band that played in a Maryland bar where white racists gathered.

Writes Kistoff:

Davis struck up a friendship with a K.K.K. member, each fascinated by the other, and the man eventually left the K.K.K., Davis said.

One of Davis’s methods — and there’s research from social psychology to confirm the effectiveness of this approach — is not to confront antagonists and denounce their bigotry but rather to start in listening mode. Once people feel they are being listened to, he says, it is easier to plant a seed of doubt.

In one case, Davis said, he listened as a K.K.K. district leader brought up crime by African Americans and told him that Black people are genetically wired to be violent. Davis responded by acknowledging that many crimes are committed by Black people but then noted that almost all well-known serial killers have been white and mused that white people must have a gene to be serial killers.

When the K.K.K. leader sputtered that this was ridiculous, Davis agreed: It’s silly to say that white people are predisposed to be serial killers, just as it’s ridiculous to say that Black people have crime genes.

The man went silent, Davis said, and about five months later quit the K.K.K.

Davis says face-t0-face talks have resulted in about 200 white supremacists to abandon the Klan and other violent extremist groups.

Scott Shepherd, once a former grand dragon of the Klan, says “Daryl saved my life. He extended his hand and actually just extended his heart, too, and we became brothers.”

Makes me wonder is that approach might work with a Floyd County musician who laces his attacks on social media with bitter comments about Black Lives Matter. Trying to talk with him about understanding is too often an invitation for a violent response.

But maybe the approach of Davis is a risk worth taking. Imagine Blacks reaching out to racists, gays having coffee with homophobes, and women talking with misogynists.

Kristoff asked Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University, about Davis and his approach.

Grant’s response:

Daryl Davis demonstrates that talking face-to-face with your ideological opponents can motivate them to rethink their views. He’s an extraordinary example of what psychologists have repeatedly shown with evidence: In over 500 studies, interacting face-to-face with an out-group reduced prejudice 94 percent of the time.

You won’t get through to people until you’ve earned their trust. You’re not likely to earn their trust until you’ve met them face-to-face and listened to their stories.

Davis said the need to talk issues out should start at home.

“If I can sit down and talk to K.K.K. members and neo-Nazis and get them to give me their robes and hoods and swastika flags and all that kind of crazy stuff,” he told Kristonff, “there’s no reason why somebody can’t sit down at a dinner table and talk to their family member.”

If a Black man can talk 200 racists into rethinking their prejudices and biases, why can’t members our of elected legislative bodies to the same?

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