A black blues musician who collects the hoods and robes of Klan members he has befriended, Daryl Davis has been the subject of daytime talk shows, a Netflix documentary and a seemingly endless series of features and think pieces.
His name is often invoked in arguments about the proper response to resurgent white supremacy in the Trump era, which generally breaks down into two positions: dialogue vs. confrontation.
Should we defeat them in the streets or in the marketplace of ideas? Should we hear them out or shout them down? Should we hug them or punch them?
Today, white nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted out an image of him and Davis together. If Davis were to convince him to abandon his racist views, it would be a huge win.
Yet, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his chances.
No more KKK in Maryland?
In a time of polarization, the fantasy that racism can defeated by chatting with Klansmen over a few beers is alluring. Not long ago, I was one of those gullible people citing Daryl Davis as proof that there is another way—killing them with kindness and so on—but the events in Charlottesville changed that.
One of the many episodes of violence at the Unite the Right rally was an incident in which a man named Richard Preston fired his gun at a black counter-protestor.
Preston, Imperial Wizard of the Maryland-based Confederate White Knights, is another one of Davis’ “friends.”
Davis appeared as a character witness at his preliminary hearing last December, where a judge charged Preston with the crime of discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, a Class 4 felony, with 6 being the least severe.
Given the circumstances as well as Preston’s prior arrests for rape and assault, the charge seems a little light.
And it’s hard to imagine such leniency had absolutely nothing to do with the testimony of someone like Davis, a guy famous for supposedly putting Klansmen on the road to redemption.
The size and activity of Preston’s organization, which now has chapters in 11 states, undermines Davis’ core narrative.
In the Netflix documentary “Accidental Courtesy,” Davis gets into heated arguments with Baltimore Black Lives Matter activists, who are rightfully skeptical of his claim that “there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland.”
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.
Davis is referring to his friendship with Roger Kelly, an Imperial Wizard of an earlier Maryland Klan group. But after that group dissolved, the Klan reconstituted itself under Preston’s leadership in 2013. In the same year that “Accidental Courtesy” came out Preston was on the road, holding rallies in Pennsylvania and Indiana, steadily building his organization.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Preston has been engaged in a rebranding in the past few years. He no doubt sees Davis as useful to that and other ends.
In addition to testifying at the hearing, Davis also allegedly offered to post a sizable chunk of Preston’s $50,000 bail. Virginia Klansman Scott Woods, who also testified, rationalizes the relationship with Davis by explaining that Preston is obviously using him:
Woods along with several Klansmen and members of the League of the South were discussing Davis’ encounter with Rebel Brigade Knights leader Bill Snuffer outside the courthouse, which became the subject of a boilerplate CNN piece titled “What happened when a Klansman met a black man in Charlottesville.”
The banal feelgoodery of cable news conceals an uglier reality. When the cameras are off and they’re among friends, who they really are comes out. They repeatedly call for his lynching and refer to him as a “pavement ape.”
As noble as Davis’ intentions may be, there are several reasons why this approach is doomed to fail.
To start with, it misunderstands the scale and systemic nature of racism in America.
The underlying assumption is that racism results from a lack of personal relationships with black people, and that befriending white supremacists will somehow awaken them to the reality of black personhood.
While prejudices are certainly fostered and worsened by not having contact with people of other races, racial prejudice is not the same as racism. They are respectively the symptom and the disease.
These attitudes don’t arise in a vacuum. They are entrenched, rooted in centuries of history and shaped by a host of institutions.
For every black person willing to do the time-consuming, potentially life-threatening work of personally trying to overcome the prejudices of hardened white supremacists, there are thousands of other voices reinforcing them—whether its media personalities parroting racist stereotypes or opportunistic politicians using the specter of black criminality to pass tough-on-crime laws.
One of the ‘good ones’
Furthermore, Davis underestimates the extent to which the worldview of racists is insulated. A friendship with a black man can easily be reconciled with a belief in the general inferiority of black people.
There are two white supremacist sayings that reflect this reality: IKAGO (I Know A Good One) and NAXALT (Not All X Are Like That).
To quote the definition of Paul Kersey, operator of the racist blog Stuff Black People Don’t Like, IKAGO means “The fallacy that not all blacks are the same, therefore black people are the same as Whites.”
A number of media outlets have said Davis uses “cognitive dissonance” to challenge racist beliefs, but racists have other ways to resolve this mental contradiction. They simply declare that every “good one” is the exception that proves the rule.
One scene in “Accidental Courtesy” illustrates this perfectly. In it, a Klansmen calls white reporters “nigger lovers” and then subsequently claims he would fight side by side with Davis as a brother.
In another, Davis sits beside a “former” Klansman and laughs while he tells racist jokes.
As for Richard Spencer, his beliefs are even less likely to change. While I’m sure this trust-fund baby who attended private school in an affluent Dallas suburb probably hasn’t been around black people much, I doubt that’s his problem.
He spent the better part of his life formulating his “identitarian” ideology and I don’t think gabbing with Daryl about Jerry Lee Lewis is going to change his mind.
Spencer is a grifter, a glib charlatan who uses Orwellian turns of phrase like “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and “voluntary self-deportation” as euphemisms for genocide. In other words, he’s exactly the type of sociopath who would manipulate an icon to liberal moderates to help further normalize his exterminationist agenda.
What has been effective at stopping the far right? Direct action. Organizing to contest their access to public space. Bankrupting them through litigation
Spencer said as much himself.
But even if Davis’ success rate were 100 percent, there’s the question of cost versus benefit. The activists in the documentary rightly pointed out that it’s a waste of time and energy that could be better spent organizing against the bigger systemic problem of racism. It’s hard enough convincing the general public that black lives matter much less people who are violently opposed to the idea.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story said that Davis had taken Preston’s robe. It was not Preston but another Imperial Wizard of the Maryland Klan. I regret the error.