Sorry Daryl Davis, But Befriending White Supremacists Doesn't Eradicate Systemic Racism — Right?

In his quest to befriend racists, Davis attempts to makes his blackness palatable even to the most hateful. Why would he do this? WHY?
Publish date:
April 8, 2016
racism, race, sxsw, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan

An interesting documentary about Blues musician Daryl Davis, called "Accidental Courtesy," screened at SXSW this year. The films explores how Davis has spent much of his free time in the past thirty years befriending members of the KKK and other white supremacist organizations in an attempt to change their racist ideologies.

While it seems that Davis has been able to make inroads with some white radicals, he hasn't been embraced to the same extent in his own community. In the film's climax, Davis has a heated confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists Tariq Toure and Kwame Rose, during which the men are critical of Daryl's approach to anti-racism work.

To understand how all of this came to be, I think it helps to have a bit of background on two pivotal moments in Davis' life. He spent his childhood abroad, where he was educated at international schools attended by people of many races and religions. His family moved back to the United States when he was ten years old and where he was one of two black kids in his suburban Boston school. Davis says that he experienced his first racist incident at this age, and subsequently posed the question, "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?" This question has been at the center of his quest to befriend members of white supremacist organizations.

Another transformational moment for Davis occurred in 1983 when he met Roger Kelly, a high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan. "He came up to me and said he liked my piano playing," Davis recalls, "then he told me this was the first time he heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis."

Davis responded, "Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he's a friend of mine. He told me himself where he learned to play."

"He was fascinated," says Davis of the incident, "but he didn't believe me. Then, he told me he was a Klansman."

The two stayed in touch (Kelly went on to become the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Klan), and later when Davis was doing research for his book (titled "Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan) he contacted Kelly. During this time, Davis went on to attend many Klan rallies, and befriended hundreds of members with the hopes of getting them to revise their attitudes about race.

To his credit, Davis seemed to have had at least some success. In the film, he shows off quite a collection of KKK robes which were gifted to him by Klansman who symbolically abandoned their hoods (and I assume their racist viewpoints). Davis hopes to one day exhibit them in a museum. One of his big reform stories is that of Scott Shepherd — a previous Grand Dragon in the KKK and a candidate for Governor of Tennessee running on a white supremacist platform — who appears in the film. He claims to have left the Klan and is working as an anti-racism activist, in part, because of their friendship.

To be honest, I don't quite know how to feel about Daryl Davis' approach. On one hand, I believe in loving kindness and non-violence as a way to dismantle hatred. Certainly, no one could argue that either Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. were not effective in inspiring change. However, I'm skeptical that individual relationships do all that much to eradicate systemic racism.

Unlike Davis, I don't believe that many racists hold their beliefs out of ignorance. In fact, I think in many cases, especially among the educated, racism is about power and control of resources.

Senator Strom Thurmond (like many bigots) always insisted he wasn't a racist. He grew up in South Carolina around black people, he even fathered a biracial daughter with his family's African-American teenage housekeeper, yet he was a staunch segregationist. Even while putting his daughter Essie Mae Washington through college and assisting her financially, he conducted one of the longest filibuster ever by a lone senator to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He even switched political parties because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

To say that racism is complicated is putting it mildly, but back to Daryl Davis. My question is simple. Why would he do this? WTF???

Aside from general weirdness, what makes me uncomfortable about Daryl Davis is the idea that by conducting oneself in a genteel manner, people of color can be made "acceptable." In his quest to befriend racists — through understanding, civility and turning the other cheek — Davis attempts to makes his blackness palatable even to the most hateful.

Davis seems educated on matters of race and sincere in his approach, but certainly there are more effective ways to make the world a better place. Maybe he is looking to validate that he is the exception to his extremist friend's racial ideologies? He did invite active KKK members to his interracial wedding (Again, WTF???).

Perhaps he is a friendly guy that's never met a person he didn't like. Or maybe he's just a crazy dude trying to sell books. I can't quite decide. And that's what bothers me most. I just don't get it. And I'm not sure anyone else really gets it. Except for Daryl Davis.