What if I’m Wrong? Reflections on “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America”

accidental-courtesy-daryl-davis-klansman

Normally I find political documentaries forgettable, but recently I saw one I can’t stop thinking about. I highly recommend it if you have Netflix. It’s called “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.”

Daryl Davis is a professional musician but he’s also very well-known for his rather unusual activism: he befriends high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, and he’s a black man.

The intention behind these friendships is to eventually steer them away from their hateful beliefs. Davis explained that while Klan members hate and/or fear black people, often once they become familiar with him they start to soften towards him, see him as a human being, and eventually, a friend. In theory, that should force them to confront the cognitive dissonance created by the incompatibility of the Klan mentality with interracial friendship. Many of the people he has befriended have left the Klan. Davis does not initiate friendships with them over the internet– it is strictly a face-to-face affair. In the age of knock down, drag out political flame wars that are only too easy to start in cyber space, this rule makes sense given Davis’s goals. The stakes, however, are raised significantly in person. I can only imagine the courage it must take to confront an enemy who literally wants you dead.

But in my last post, and really in all my posts so far, I’ve been skeptical about the prospect of any type dialogue–let alone coalition building– between far right extremists and the left. Hate groups like the KKK certainly qualify as extreme. Davis said something that struck me because it is literally the exact opposite of something I’ve written on this blog:

“If you have an adversary, someone with an opposing point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be… give that person a platform. Allow them to air their views, and when you do things like that, there is an excellent chance that people will reciprocate.”

My argument has always been to refuse these people a platform. That dialogue with a white supremacist is not only pointless but cheapens the entire concept of dialogue.

In the documentary, Davis has three very (I thought) productive conversations with other leftists who disagree with his approach and are more in line with my thinking. I’ve posted transcriptions of all those conversations under the cut if you’re curious, but I really recommend seeing the movie if possible. He talks to Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter activists Kwame Rose and  Tariq Touré and Black Lives Matter Community Organizer JC Faulk. All four of these men make a similar point: why pour all this time and energy into this specific method of improving race relations? For one thing, changing a white supremacist’s mind is a very, very slow process. It also doesn’t always work. And it is fair to speculate that Davis might have instead chosen to direct his resources elsewhere, into other movements, with more concrete results.

I will admit I find something incredibly powerful about changing a white supremacist’s mind. It’s a really seductive idea. But I tend to agree with his critics– we need to think beyond the individual level when it comes to stamping out white supremacy. I also see Davis’s perspective as asking people, particularly people of color and other marginalized people, to take on not only an enormous amount of risk, but also emotional labor. I don’t think it is right or fair to ask people to give white supremacists space for a platform when that platform is hate and death.

But I’m open to the idea that I’m being closed-minded. I’ve been displaced from my home in Santa Barbara due to the Thomas Fire, so my apologies for this short and not very involved post. Mainly, I have questions to pose to my readers. Is there some possibility for dialogue between those on the left, such as myself, and those on the far right? Do we need to be reaching out to those we disagree with most?

 

***

Transcripts from “Accidental Courtesy”:

Davis and Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center:

Davis: I am trying to get into the minds of people like that by, actually, not putting them, you know, on the spot, following the research, but in social situations. I am a professional musician. I would invite them to my gigs to see my band play, try to sit down, have dinner with people. And, uh, through that process, some of them have re-thought their ideology. Of course, there’ll be those who go to their graves being hateful and being violent and who will never leave, you know, uh– that ideology. But I come from more of a thing of trying to understand and trying to set an example and trying to explain things and see if they can’t take a stand themselves to re-direct their thinking and perhaps rehabilitate their own ideology.

Potok: Our intention is, if possible, to destroy these groups. Uh, if that’s not possible, to marginalize them politically. We’ve helped a lot of people out of groups, but we don’t go in and have coffee with the Klan leader at all. I mean, my experience has been that by and large, people come out of these groups when they are ready to.

[Discussing Frank Ancona, Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK].

Davis to Potok: While I don’t necessarily agree with his separatist ideology, I consider Frank Ancona to be a friend of mine. Actually, I consider him to be a very good friend of mine. I’ve been into his home. I’ve met his wife and daughter. And we’ve had great conversations for several years now.

Potok: Whatever the man may say at the dinner table, however nicely he treats his kids and dog,  the fact is he is pouring hatred out there into the public square which goes way beyond Frank Ancona. I mean, yeah, look, you’re working on a retail strategy. We’re working on a wholesale strategy. You know, we can’t wait around. Maybe Frank Ancona will find redemption and good for him. I’m not motivated by personal hatred of Frank Ancona. There’s a larger poison at work here than just the question of, ‘Is Frank Ancona personally a bad man?’

 

***

Davis and Tariq Touré and Kwame Rose, Baltimore Black Lives Matter activists:

Rose: I’m a 21 year old college dropout most people know me from April. During the Baltimore uprising. I’m the guy that confronted Geraldo Rivera. Since the death of Trayvon Martin, there’s been a trending hashtag on social media, #blacklivesmatter. That’s kind of put in the spotlight the fact that police have been killing unarmed black people. April 12th, Freddie Gray was racially profiled by three white officers. He got chased down. He got beat up. By the time he got to the Western police district, his spine was 90 percent severed. He died April 19th. Working class people, poor black people, rich black people and all of our allies took to the streets for almost a month and let it be known, you know, this was not gonna be a trend here in Baltimore.

Rose: We gotta talk about how we’re going to end white supremacy, how we’re going to build black institutions, and how we all relate to that.

Touré: This country is built off of economics so if we’re not talking about getting our wealth back or building our wealth, then we really ain’t talking about anything. We can go off the rhetoric, all the history. It doesn’t work for me.

Davis: Okay, so in a kind of roundabout way, you’re more into segregation than integration?

Touré: No, but do we need to separate our dollars and fund our own stuff and fund our own institutions and fund our own businesses? Absolutely, because, so far, our dollars just going up like a mushroom cloud.

Davis: You’re both sounding a little bit like Donald Trump.

Rose: Hey, I don’t have a problem with Donald Trump. I wish he was president.

Davis: Tell me why.

Rose: ‘Cause it’s the wolf and the fox. I know where his heart is. I know what his aspirations are. Donald Trump gonna let you know straight up, ‘I don’t like you. Here’s why I don’t like you. Here’s what I’m going to do about you.’ And cool. Then you can combat it from there. But Hillary Clinton, that’s leading–

Davis: So why don’t you just vote for David Duke?

Rose: I ain’t voting for nobody. I got the privilege to vote that I ain’t never gonna use. We still in the same predicaments that we were in, fighting the same war we were fighting, that Martin Luther King fought and affected, and when he got us–

Davis: Voting is not a privilege. It’s a right.

Touré: It seems like a privilege if it’s a whole bunch of people, like the whole swath of fellas that can’t vote at all, never be able to vote again.

When asked about their perspective on Davis’s work, this is what they said:

Touré: I would just want to know what the end goal is, for the layman of Latrobe projects, who is receiving all the– the ills of white supremacy and that hate, right? And on a day-to-day level. How do they even begin to think about that conversation that you’re engaging in?

Davis: My end goal is to bring people together. Okay? Bring white supremacists together with their nemesis, as we learn how to get along with one another. This country is–

Rose: But why I gotta get along with them?

Davis: Because they are our fellow Americans. We all have to live in this country together.

Rose: (laughs) Shit.

Davis: Okay? We do. Otherwise, we’re gonna end up self-destructing.

[Discussing Davis’s plans to build a museum for the KKK robes and memorabilia he has collected]

Touré: So what is this museum? Who is it for?

Davis: People like you.

Touré: Oh no, I’m good.

Davis: Oh yeah. No, you’re not good.

Touré: You ever heard of something called intergenerational trauma?

Davis: Intergenerational trauma? No, explain it to me.

Touré: It’s trauma passed on through generations through images, symbols, different things like that. So, I have a daughter. She’s one years old. However, whenever the museum gets built– let’s say she’s 15– there’s no way in hell I’m bringing her there. So she can relive that and see all of that? No, not at all. What’s the point?

Davis: Because in order to know where you’re going you have to know where you came from.

Touré: White folks need to go see that. How many robes have you collected?

Davis: Roughly, I’d say maybe 25, 26.

Rose: How long you been doing that for?

Davis: Uh, since about 1990.

Rose: And you only got 26 robes?

Touré: You only got 25 robes?

Davis: You asked me about robes. You didn’t ask me about Klan memorabilia. I got tons of stuff.

Rose: So, since 1990, which is longer than I’ve been alive, you’ve been trying to infiltrate the Klan. But what does that do for people?

Davis: Well, I’ll tell you what– I’ll tell you what it does, okay? The state of Maryland had a large Klan organization. When the Imperial Wizard, which means the national leader, when he turned in his robe to me, the Maryland Ku Klux Klan fell apart. Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan–

Rose: (laughs) I beg to differ.

Davis: Let me finish. Today– well, you can’t, because I got the facts, okay? Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland.

Rose: Infiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people.

Davis: I disagree with you.

Rose: I don’t see how.

Davis: What about, uh, Timothy McVeigh?

Rose: I don’t– he’s in jail.

Davis: Oh, he is?

Rose: Wasn’t he killed? Something like that. So what?

Davis: Obviously, you’re very uneducated about it.

Rose: And you uneducated about the reality of most of the people that look like you.

Touré: Every day, on the hour, young black men and women are being snatched–

Davis: On the minute.

Touré: … And kidnapped on the streets. They’re ruining people’s lives, right? Not rehabilitating and sending them right back in the same neighborhoods that are already screwed up anyway. So when you say, ‘Oh well, we need to be worried about somebody blowing something up.” No! Someone’s getting locked up right now that’s 16 years old that may never see the light of day again, just because they look like my skin, or Kwame’s skin, or your skin for that matter. So we’re talking about all the energy that you putting into all them years? That’s a whole lotta years to be doing that, to be stuck. It sound like a fetish!

Rose: Befriending a white person who don’t have to go through the same struggles as you, me, the son in the barbershop or the father, that’s not an accomplishment. That’s a new friend. That’s somebody you can call.

Davis: And this coming from a dropout.

Rose: You don’t tell Steve Jobs he ain’t successful. He ain’t have no college degree. Bill Gates ain’t got no college degree. But listen– but what I got–

At this point Touré gets up and leaves saying “You’re being disrespectful now.”

Rose: The way– you can be in the streets building with people, right? So, stop wasting your time going into people’s houses that don’t love you, a house where they want to throw you under the basement.

Davis: So you believe nobody can change?

Rose: No, I believe you believe the wrong people can change.

Davis: What do you mean the wrong people can change?

Rose: White supremacists can’t change.

Davis: You don’t believe they can change?

Rose: The white– No, white supremacists can’t change. But I can change your mind because you look like me. You ain’t doing nothing but collecting something that’s gonna build your own credibility. You nothing but a pimp in a pulpit.

Davis: And you’re nothing but ignorant.

***

 

Davis and JC Faulk, Black Lives Matter Community Organizer. Faulk refuses to shake Davis’s hand.

Faulk: I just want to say a couple things about the interactions I just saw. First of all man, you an old head like me. For you to come to Baltimore and disrespect some of the people who are on the front line here in Baltimore in the way that you did is reprehensible. Just like the young man said to you, you could have done a whole lot more work in the black community from the 90s to now to move our people forward rather than coming in here and trying to uplift somebody that you got a hood off of their head. They still wear those hoods. And while you were saying the KKK doesn’t exist, I looked up the KKK in Maryland and there’s a Klan group in Maryland right now, still very active. You look it up yourself. So, I’m saying, you talking– you calling somebody ignorant? You might want to check your own ignorance around this before you start calling my young men in Baltimore who are out here putting their lives on the line– Kwame marches hard with me in Baltimore. Kwame gets arrested in Baltimore. Where were you when the marches were going on? You were sitting with your Klan people and disrespecting my people. If you can’t respect black people and respect my people for doing the work that they’re doing, take your ass and you hang out with them. Freddie Gray is dead. Tyrone West is dead. Anthony Anderson is dead. All that shit you talking about, these Klan– these KKK hoods– who gives a shit? I don’t give a shit about you or your KKK hoods! Don’t come to Baltimore doing this shit again!

Faulk gets up and leaves.

15 thoughts on “What if I’m Wrong? Reflections on “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America”

  1. Sounds like an excellent and challenging documentary that brings up many ideas to consider. I’m fairly neutral on the political spectrum so I tend not to say much about my thoughts on matters these days, but I often agree with and am glad to see these kinds of methods being used, even if merely on an individual scale, as they seem so psychologically logical to how people actually work in real life and real time and is how real progress can be made in changing people’s minds, albeit far more slowly than people want or need change to happen. I’m not of an opinion that you can force people (and sadly often through shame and hatred) to change their long held stances and beliefs, especially by no platforming, dehumanising and taking away everything. It just makes the belief fester, reinforces their stance, and makes people come back harder. Though obviously it’s difficult and counterintuitive to face with openness and neutrality those who are so radically opposed to everything you are for, and sometimes there is no winning. Not with everyone. Which is a frustrating thing. This method seems so real though. It’s truly based in the commonality of being a human living on this planet. Very admirable and brave of him.

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    1. The psychology of the entire process was so interesting to me. I’m glad someone out there has the strength and energy to take on this Herculean task. There is something very human about the whole thing that made my view feel almost petty. I don’t know. I’m so conflicted.

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  2. I enjoy reading your posts. They always make me think.

    I saw a documentary where a Muslim British woman journalist goes to interview alt right members in the US. She had done a documentary previously on acceptance of multiculturalism in the UK and had received death threats and other harassment online as a result from alt right members. She was trying to open a dialogue to the members in the US she met about why they joined, what kept them there, what values they believed in and upheld, how far they would go in turning their beliefs and rhetoric into real actions, i.e. would they deport someone like her, a Muslim, to create their ‘vision’ of a white ethnostate. Most of them seemed to hold to their beliefs and said it was unfortunate because they viewed her as a ‘friend’ after spending time with her, and that she ‘treated them with respect’, but they would probably deport her regardless even though it was ‘unfortunate’ because otherwise they were renegading on their fundamental belief system. But some other members seemed to have sympathy for those they had a personal relationship with, i.e. her. They viewed Muslims as an ‘other’ with suspicion because many had grown up in rural areas of Tennessee where they had only been exposed to religious white fundamental culture. One guy took particular thrill in making up hate leaflets and throwing them out of the car to Jewish houses. He said he had also targeted mosques but probably wouldn’t do it any more because a Muslim woman was the only person who cared to ring about his girlfriend when she was in hospital. Their dialogue with the journalist is that they viewed anyone non-white as something ‘other’; how the Nazi’s dehumanised, causing so much suffering with lack of empathy. At the end of the documentary, some of the members she interviewed contacted her to say they had resigned from the alt right after meeting her and her showing them the hateful messages she had received and asking them if they would say that to her. It seemed to make some of them think and realise she was actually a human being and a ‘friend’. But the amount of emotional labour that went into her interviews and meetings must have been huge. Facing people who hate you for your race, religion, skin colour and want you ‘gone from their country’, a belief shrouded in fundamental irony since the US never was the origin of where these white people came from and was stolen land. There was a bit in the documentary where Richard Spencer seemed to legitimise this as ‘the whites won, bad luck, we are here and superior, everyone else can get out’. Some of the alt right members interviewed admitted they had been bullied when younger or were ‘troubled’ so they enjoyed the idea of using this resentment and anger to reek havoc on declaring war, control and violence against people of colour and anyone not like them. She interviewed some previous band members who were responsible for very racist songs inciting violence and had admitted being an active participant in that violence, but they had since left the movement. It was interesting but must have taken a large emotional toll on her, and they seemed to only respect her because she was ‘kind to them’ by asking them questions and allowing them to talk about their hateful rhetoric, participate in marches with them including Charlottesville, etc. It seemed like a lot of emotional work for people who basically didn’t want her to exist in their country, and I wondered whether these people deserved any respect in the first place, or to be listened to at all, especially by someone who was basically their enemy. By discussing these things with hate filled alt right members, is their argument legitimised? Does it give a voice and a platform to the hateful divisive alt right rhetoric that is beyond ‘free speech’ but is actually hate speech, xenophobia, racism and discrimination? Are we asking emotional labour from the very people the alt right want to gratuitously dismiss and persecute? Would it have been up to the Jewish population to ‘educate’ the Nazis? A troubling notion indeed.

    I’ll leave with one thought that struck me from this documentary I saw. The alt right were seen as a fringe group, but since the election of Trump, their views have become a lot more politicised and mainstream. Trump’s rhetoric builds into very similar language which the alt right also use. After Trump’s election, the alt right have received a huge surge in legitimacy, and now they finally feel like their voices can be heard and backed up by the president. A sign then perhaps that allowing this hateful rhetoric to have a voice without critical challenge at every turn is just a way to make the disease more virulent.

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    1. Your questions are EXACTLY the ones that have been nagging at me. Legitimizing these people with both friendship and engagement; demanding emotional labor from those most vulnerable to its possibly lethal effects. There is something incredibly perverse about asking the oppressed to educate their oppressors.

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  3. I’m glad there’s someone seeking this solution, and I think it would be a mistake to say there’s only one thing to do that could make a contribution to change in any community. On the other hand, I’m so far from being affected by it that it’s hardly my place to say.

    There have been a couple of reports recently in New Scientist (and therefore probably other places) on the impossibility of changing someone’s mind with facts, because of how vigorously our minds protect our existing beliefs and positions. I think what Davis appears to understand is that you can change people’s feelings, though. It’s a knotty question, isn’t it; whether it’s right to spend time rehabilitating individual racists (who, on the face of it, haven’t done anything to deserve your contribution to their lives) when you could be spending your energy helping your own community members directly, agitating for legal change, and so on. And perhaps Davis is again the one who understands that a diversity of approaches is possible, and possibly useful.

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    1. I guess the thing that bothered me was the idea that we have to “get along” with white supremacists, you know? And the idea that this task inevitably falls on the shoulders of those white supremacists would like to see harmed if we all have ~just get along~. It even makes me upset that Davis himself should feel the need to take on such work. But you’re right. Facts usually don’t do anything. What is that psychological phenomenon called, when people are presented with facts and their minds don’t change anyway? I can’t remember.

      Still, after watching this I have been wondering if I should try engaging with my opponents more. I kind of gave up years ago because it’s so exhausting.

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      1. I think you’re totally right (and from what I can gather, Davis’s co-interviewees too) that the burden of convincing white supremacists that their beliefs are harmful and absurd shouldn’t fall on the oppressed. It’s the same sort of argument that I’m reading a lot at the moment, around women having to do the emotional labour of explaining feminism to men. But if Davis chooses to do the work, and sees value in it (emotional labour that’s chosen can be very personally satisfying if it creates change, I think?), I wouldn’t feel I could say it’s wrong. Then again, of course once people see that his emotional-labour approach works, they start asking other people from the same community why they’re not also taking that approach, and clearly that’s wrong. So I can see why others in his community would find those negatives in his approach.

        There’s the backfire effect (needs a better name if you ask me!) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-convince-someone-when-facts-fail/ and there’s confirmation bias as well, both rooted in our commitment to what we already believe. I’m sure I suffer from them as much as anyone.

        I’m not sure about the engaging of opponents either. I’m not sure how I could make a bigot of my acquaintance *feel* any differently about marginalised people. As much as I talk to my family about asylum seekers or marriage equality, I can only use outsider language (which is mostly about facts, come to think of it?), so what’s it really convincing anyone of, except how I feel about things? Exhausting and difficult. If only people just wanted to be less arseholey from the get go.

        Apropos, I spoke to a Trump supporter in a shuttle van yesterday at some length. His argument was basically built on how ‘we’ (his we) work hard and everyone else takes advantage of us, and Trump’s platform is to stop that happening. Specifically he mentioned welfare recipients (everyone receiving welfare payments, except ‘us’ of course, is bludging off the system and has no desire to work hard and help themselves) and ‘all these other countries’ who’ve ‘taken advantage of us on trade and foreign aid for years’. The same old tired lies. I’m sure the billionaires would have been pleased though.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article!
    It’s a misunderstanding of human nature to think that aggressive, adversarial, or collisionary behavior will accomplish love, peace, and respect between human groups, ever.

    Even if we put all racists in prison, eliminating them from free society, could we claim victory for a bigotry-free society? Would we be any better than the racists if we used the threat of violence to achieve our altruistic goals?

    Ki-aikido is a Japanese martial art with the central tenet of “peaceful resolution to conflict.” The art clearly demonstrates that defending oneself using adversarial collisionary tension only works when your attacker is smaller or weaker. Of course giving in to your attacker never works. But through the ki-aikido art we find there is a third option when dealing with an attacker, described in steps here: 1) keep your own balance, 2) see and respect your attacker’s intention, 3) meet your attacker as a friend, 4) then lead your new friend into balance (often safely pinned on the ground).

    When done peacefully, at no point does the attacker feel like he is being moved, thrown, or pinned against his will. Often he finds himself laughing at the mystery of how he simultaneously accomplished his original goal of smiting his enemy and ended up being gently pinned on the ground by his new friend.

    Human nature is kind and empathetic to those who are ill. A racist is truly ill, but so is anyone who sees others as enemies instead of ill friends.
    Modern ill humans who seek peace through punishment instead of empathy were created by society not born of nature.

    A big part of the cure for ill humans (including racists) is for each of us to practice developing our natural but suppressed empathy for ourselves and for those with whom we disagree.

    Again, great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! I find it so interesting how polarizing this topic has been amongst my friends and readers.

      Do you really think someone is ill for finding a racist to be their enemy when that person wants them dead? For example, when a Jewish person thinks of a Nazi as an enemy? I have a hard time understanding that. To me, there is a difference between aggression taken in self-defense and aggression taken in intention to inflict harm.

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      1. Fascinating question! It depends on the definition of enemy. If enemy means someone I must pre-emptively and aggressively fight, without any attempt of peaceful negotiations – yes, ill.
        If enemy means someone I must see carefully his intentions, keep myself and others safe from, yet stay open to possible peaceful resolution, then no, not ill but very healthy.

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      1. So true. And what to do about those die hard haters? I don’t know. But I guess your article begs the question, does hating haters work, or is it just spreading more hate? Obviously agreeing with haters doesn’t stop hate. So is there a third, more productive, more peaceful option?

        Liked by 1 person

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