'Every Racist I Know Voted for Donald Trump'

Daryl Davis believes the method he used to persuade many klansmen to defect from the hate group can help America to bridge its political divides.

An effigy of Donald Trump displayed at a rally in 2016 (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters )

As a hobby, the black musician Daryl Davis persuades members of the Ku Klux Klan to defect from the organization. Over the years, he has spoken with hundreds of white supremacists. And due to his work, a couple dozen people have left the organization, including at least two prominent figures in senior leadership positions.

Two years ago, after listening to his life story on Love+Radio, the peerless character-driven interview podcast, I wrote about his belief that “when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself.” In listening to his most bitter enemies, Davis heard words and ideas that chilled him to the bone—yet he found that by listening and conversing he could subvert them. Some men even handed over their Klan garb, as he reminds critics of his approach. “I pull out my robes and hoods and say, ‘This is what I've done to put a dent in racism,” he explained. “I've got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who've given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?”

This week, Love+Radio released a followup interview.

The show’s creator, Nick van der Kolk, felt that in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Americans were having a hard time conversing. “I think when people feel scared they start arguing from this place of emotionality,” he said, “which is totally understandable, but it's also not very effective in terms of converting people.” He called Davis to ask his advice—and his thoughts on Donald Trump.

“Every racist that I know—and I know a lot of racists—every racist that I know voted for Donald Trump,” Davis said near the end of the interview. “However,” he added, “that does not, and I expressly repeat it, that does not mean that everybody who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. There are plenty of people, including good friends of mine, who are not racist, and who voted for Trump. A lot of people wanted a change from what they were accustom to for the last decades … they wanted a change of the status quo, a changing of the guard. And they were willing to overlook his misogyny, his racist or bigoted comments. They just wanted that change. They were are not racist people. But every racist I know did vote for him.”

He attributes that to a campaign focused on fear of outsiders. “They got the most powerful man in the world to say the exact same thing that they've been saying for decades. For over a century,” he said. “You know they're going to vote for him.”

Racists now feel emboldened, he said—“stuff that this country has denied for so long has come to surface. We can no longer deny racism exists in abundance in this country.”

How does one counter fear or hatred of outsiders, whether from the leadership of the KKK or an otherwise wonderful neighbor with ugly prejudices toward Syrian refugees? For that matter, how does one talk about any subject despite deep moral disagreements? There is no substitute for listening to Davis’ advice in his own voice here.

For now, a sample of his advice.

The dos:

  • “Gather your information. Get an astute knowledge of the other person's side before meeting them. Review it in your head. Be as familiar with their position as you are with your own. That way you know what to expect and how to react. You might hear things that frighten you. You might hear things that make you angry or make you sad or hurt you. But these are words. And you go in there because that person has an opposing point of view. That's what you're looking for. To find out why they think that way, why they want to do these things.”
  • “Invite them to have a conversation, not to debate. A debate is I want to make my point, you want to make your point, and we're going to fight it out. That tends to get their guard up. You say, hey, I want to have a conversation with you. I want to understand why you feel the way you feel. I want you to convince me that I need to change my way of thinking. And I appreciate your sharing your views. I'm interested in how you feel. And that's what a lot of people want. They want to be heard. They want to be able to speak their mind freely without fear of retaliation or somebody beating them over the head for their views or ramming their own views down the person's throat. So give them that.”
  • “Look for commonalities. You can find something in five minutes—even with your worst enemy. And build on those. Say I don't like you because you're white and I'm black. You disgust me … And so our contention is based upon our races. But you're like, ‘how do you feel about all these drugs on the street, and all these meth labs that are popping up?’ And I say, I think the law needs to crack down on things that people can get addicted to very easily and it's destroying our society. So you say, ‘Well yeah, I agree 100 percent.’ You might even tell me your son started dabbling in drugs. They don't discriminate. So now I see that you want what I want, that drugs are affecting your family the same way they affect my family, so now we're in agreement. So let's focus on that. As we focus more and more and find more things in common, things we have in contrast, such as skin color, matter less and less.”
  • “When two enemies are talking they're not fighting. They might be yelling and screaming or disagreeing or beating their fists on the table to drive home a point but at least they're talking. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So you want to keep the conversation going. And the more you keep the conversation going, even though you might be disagreeing, the more commonalities you will eventually find. When you can't talk to one another you're laying the ground work for trouble.”
  • “Patience is a virtue. My method worked for me, because I've taken the time and had the patience to learn about the other side. I've read tons of material on the Klan, on the neo-Nazis, on white supremacy, on black supremacy. So I know how the mentality works. And when I go in there I tend to be a little more disarming than someone who does not have that knowledge.”
  • “I know there comes a point in time when you say, okay, enough time, now things have got to change ... if you need to legislate something or force something, then fine, you have those tools available. That's why we have lawmakers. But the day the law changed to when black people could ride in the front of the bus, or not have to give up their seat, the day that law changed did not necessarily change the minds of the white riders. You can legislate behavior but you cannot legislate belief. Patience is what it takes. But patience doesn't mean sitting around on your butt waiting for something to happen. Be proactive. And don't just sit around and talk with your friends who believe the way you do. Invite other people who have differences of opinion.”

And the don’ts:

  • “You can become argumentative but don't become condescending. Don't become insulting. You're going to hear things that you don't like. You're going to hear things that you know are absolutely wrong. And their opinion may be ridiculous. You will also hear things that are not opinions that they're going to put out as facts. ‘There are more black people on welfare than white people.’ Well, that's not true. And you should counter that and correct that. But don't do it in a manner that is insulting or condescending because you know they're wrong, and you're going to beat them over the head for being wrong. Show them the data, or tell them you'll get it, or if they really believe it, say, I know you're wrong, but if you think you're right then bring me the data.”
  • “Don't explain somebody else's movement initially. Let them explain it. And then address the points they have defined. There will be key points that you know you can counter and shut down, but let them finish, give them a little more rope. Say, I hear what you're saying but I'm not there yet. I need more clarification from you. You said, blah blah blah. Can you give me more facts on why I should accept that? And they'll come out with these points. Then go to the points that they made. Quote their words and shut down their factual mistakes.”

How would Daryl Davis go about arguing against, say, a ban on Muslim refugees?

You want to draw people out. They are fearful of people who look different, but you have to remind them you're dealing with a certain sect of that religion.

The Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian. These people who are supporting this travel ban—most of them are Christian, too. But are they the same Christians as the Klan? Ask them that.

"The Klan says that they are Christian. Are you the same as the Klan?"

No, I don't support the Ku Klux Klan.

"Well, guess what, they're Christian."

Well, no, I don't consider them Christian.

"Good. Guess what? There are Muslims here and abroad who do not support the Muslims that are doing all this destruction and all this terrorism. So why paint that religion with a broad brush and not your own?"

You've got to show them different perspectives.

And they'll say, I see what you're saying, but how do you tell?

“Well, you know what, why should I let any white people into my neighborhood? How do I know that they're not Klan unless they're wearing their robe and hood? You might be a klansman in your suit and tie. How do I tell? We need to come up with ways to figure this stuff out but we don't do it by discriminating against other people unless we have valid proof.”

Not everyone has the personality or reasoning skills to pull off the Daryl Davis approach to persuasion. But to his critics, I find the question, “How many people have you persuaded to leave the Ku Klux Klan?” a powerful retort. And an energizing one, in that improving America doesn’t require that most people achieve anything as daunting as converting a klansmen or other extremist with hatred in his heart.

Indeed, there is much lower hanging fruit to pluck.

Think of your least favorite politician or policy. Often as not, converting even 5 percent of the folks on the other side is enough to push the country in a different direction. A lot of those people are already somewhat sympathetic to your views. For Trump opponents, the challenge isn’t converting the Klansmen who support him. It’s helping others see the most toxic elements of his coalition and agenda. Having truth on one’s side is an advantage, but only for those who know how to exploit it. The approach Trump opponents used in 2016 failed; perhaps it’s time for something new.