Daryl Davis Is Still Going Strong

In 2017, Keith and I both wrote about a man named Daryl Davis, a Black man who is doing more than his share to help white supremacists stop being white supremacists, one at a time.  If you’re interested, here are links to Keith’s post and mine.  Last weekend, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof’s column looked to Davis and his technique in hopes of taking a page from Davis’ playbook to find ways to deal with people on the other side of the many divisive issues we are confronted with today. I think it is well worth considering …


‘How Can You Hate Me When You Don’t Even Know Me?’

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

One of the questions I’m asked most is: How do I talk to those on the other side of America’s political and cultural abyss? What can I say to my brother/aunt/friend who thinks Joe Biden is a socialist with dementia who stole the election?

I’ve wondered about persuasion strategies, too, because I have friends who have their pro-Trump or anti-vaccine biases validated every evening by Tucker Carlson. So I reached out to an expert at changing minds.

Daryl Davis, 63, is a Black musician with an unusual calling: He hangs out with Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis and chips away at their racism. He has evidence of great success: a collection of K.K.K. robes and hoods given him by people whom he persuaded to abandon the Klan.

His odyssey arose from curiosity about racism, including about an attack he suffered. 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 recalled. “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 remembers wondering, “when you don’t even know me?”

Davis began to work on answers after he graduated from Howard University and joined a band that sometimes played in a Maryland bar that attracted white racists. 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 claims to have persuaded some 200 white supremacists to leave the Klan and other extremist groups. It’s impossible to confirm that number, but his work has been well documented for decades in articles, videos, books and a TED Talk. He also has a podcast called “Changing Minds With Daryl Davis.”

“Daryl saved my life,” said Scott Shepherd, a former grand dragon of the K.K.K. “Daryl extended his hand and actually just extended his heart, too, and we became brothers.” Shepherd ended up leaving the Klan and gave his robes to Davis.

Davis’s approach seems out of step with modern sensibilities. Today the more common impulse is to decry from a distance.

The preference for safe spaces over dialogue arises in part from a reasonable concern that engaging extremists legitimizes them. In any case, society can hardly ask Black people to reach out to racists, gay people to sit down with homophobes, immigrants to win over xenophobes, women to try to reform misogynists, and so on. Victims of discrimination have endured enough without being called upon to redeem their tormentors.

Yet I do think that we Americans don’t engage enough with people we fundamentally disagree with. There’s something to be said for the basic Davis inclination toward dialogue even with unreasonable antagonists. If we’re all stuck in the same boat, we should talk to each other.

“Daryl Davis demonstrates that talking face-to-face with your ideological opponents can motivate them to rethink their views,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “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,” Grant added. “You’re not likely to earn their trust until you’ve met them face-to-face and listened to their stories.”

There’s a reason we try to solve even intractable wars by getting the parties to sit in the same room: It beats war. If we believe in engagement with North Koreans and Iranians, then why not with fellow Americans?

At a time when America is so polarized and political space is so toxic, we, of course, have to stand up for what we think is right. But it may also help to sit down with those we believe are wrong.

“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,” Davis said, “there’s no reason why somebody can’t sit down at a dinner table and talk to their family member.”

29 thoughts on “Daryl Davis Is Still Going Strong

  1. I have tried, and tried, though mainly on line. But most are not willing to consider changing. Their hope in talking to me is to gain another undiscriminating asshole to their cause, whatever it is. When they realize that is impossible, they withdraw silently. To change would mean they dedicated their life to a lie, and they cannot cope with that idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mr Davis is a true inspiration. Imagine if all ppl would adopt his perspective and just be open to communication, without judgement or preconceived ideas about others.
    It’s about seeing the other’s point of view, and you are right, this can be applied to politics, war, or whatever conflicts or disagreements we humans may have. Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Wibble and commented:
    This:

    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.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As an autistic, my social skills leave me floundering on many occasions, but using techniques similar to Davis (a skill I learnt from Quaker training) I have had moderate success in countering bigotry and willful ignorance. But I’m the first to admit that sometimes the courage required to converse goes “missing in action”, especially with those who are overtly aggressive or macho.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m not autistic, but I am introverted and my social skills are hard to come by … I’m always relieved to be back in my own home and not have to try to speak coherently to people I don’t know, or maybe don’t even like! I also have a temper, so I know that I could never do what Daryl Davis does, sit quietly listening to somebody put forth their white supremacist views. I fear I’d end up in jail before the conversation was finished! But, I’m so glad and grateful for Mr. Davis for all that he has done and continues to do.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I think Mr Davis is a man of great courage. Sitting down to be reasonable with people who are capable of being the most unreasonable, murderous psychopaths possible. That he’s been so successful speaks volumes for him as a man. I don’t think I could do it as I’d go in with an attitude of antagonism because I detest their life choices.
    Cwtch

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree — courage and infinite patience. I cannot imagine me sitting next to a person spouting white supremacy b.s. and just sitting there listening, not interrupting, not decking him, not calling him a racist pig … yes, indeed, Mr. Davis is a man with infinite patience. You and I couldn’t do it, but isn’t it great that people like Daryl Davis can … and do! Changing minds, one at a time.
      Cwtch

      Liked by 2 people

    • Indeed, it is the best, as Daryl Davis has proven, but … I cannot imagine sitting and listening to someone trying to justify their racist views without either punching him or cursing him and walking out. Mr. Davis has far more patience, I think, than I do! xx

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    • Can you imagine how hard it must be sometimes to sit and listen to their excuses for their racism, yet not get up and punch them, or at the very least curse them? He has, I think, the patience of a saint!

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      • Jill, I think his willingness to listen and then ask probing questions is a gift for all of us to emulate. I think being a musician also makes him approachable as it provides a common thread to start with. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree, Keith, but … try as I might, I don’t think I could bite my tongue that much! I greatly admire him and wish I had his patience, but … it’s one of the virtues I sorely lack. Still, I do try … I try harder these days, since every time I begin to rant, I hear your voice urging calm, reminding me that name-calling accomplishes nothing. 😉

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  6. a great post, I hadn’t heard of this dude before but I like his approach. Now where the heck is that like button? lol.
    hugs my friend, I hope you’re doing well.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m glad you liked Daryl Davis and his way of convincing people without rancor or hatred! I don’t think I could be as patient as he is!

      Hugs to you, and yes … I’m doing okay. Got the second dose of the vaccine on Saturday, no side effects, so now I am fully vaccinated! Not that it much matters, since I’ll still be staying home, but … And how are you all doing?

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