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Can people be ‘converted’ out of racism?

A look at the life of Daryl Davis, a man who convinced 200 people to leave the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups

Daryl Davis’ home in Washington, D.C., is unique for that of a Black man. On a wood-paneled wall next to the electric keyboard where he practices his craft as a professional musician, there are dozens of framed photos of him with former white supremacists. In a back closet, he has more than 50 Ku Klux Klan robes, made from silk or cotton. The robes come in an array of colors including purple, green or white, and are paired with matching pointed hoods.

Each one represents a man or woman who let go of hate, thanks to Davis’ friendship.

In a world plagued by division, between Republicans and Democrats, between older and younger generations, between police and civilians and between different racial groups, Davis, 62, believes in the power of human connection to overcome imagined barriers. He has had an influence on the lives of more than 200 people who have left the KKK or other white supremacist groups.

Davis was in his house on May 25, sitting in view of the wall of photographs, when he saw the news about George Floyd’s death.

“I was very angry,” said Davis. “For a lot of people, the George Floyd thing was an anomaly, a one-off that happened in a bubble. But for us, there have been hundreds of George Floyds over the years, and we have been crying out to be heard.”

According to Davis, anger is a natural reaction to violence and discrimination, but anger must be channeled into positive actions, like peaceful protest and political advocacy. Davis’ weapon of choice in the fight against racism is friendship. He believes so strongly in its power, he predicts that tragedy could have been avoided if he had known Derek Chauvin and the other Minneapolis police officers charged with killing Floyd.

“I think there’s a good possibility that would not have happened had I been friends with those people,” Davis said. “A very good possibility.”

Genuine friendship, nurtured by an open dialogue and mutual respect, is an effective tool, not just for combating explicit discrimination but for correcting unconscious biases as well, said Davis. The simple message of “Black Lives Matter” is so meaningful because it captures the need for people to recognize the humanity in others, he said.

“It all comes down to having civil discourse, and a willingness to listen to one another,” said Davis. “There are many different ways to fight (racism). There’s no one way solve the whole problem. What I do is not gonna solve all of it, what somebody else does is not gonna solve all of it, but what will solve all of it is different people and groups working together.”

Daryl Davis is a musician and author on the issue of race relations who has helped over 200 people leave the KKK and other white power movements, in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, June 29, 2020.
Daryl Davis is a musician and author on the issue of race relations who has helped over 200 people leave the KKK and other white power movements. He is pictured in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, June 29, 2020.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

How to have difficult conversations

In 2016, Davis sat down with Jeff Schoep at a restaurant called Chris’ Hot Dogs in Montgomery, Alabama, as part of a documentary called “Accidental Courtesy.” At the time, Schoep, who lives in Detroit, was the head of the National Socialist Movement, which was the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country with about 55 chapters. The grandson of a man who fought in Hitler’s army, Schoep was heavily influenced by “Mein Kampf” and regularly marched wearing Nazi gear in the 1990s. When meeting Davis in 2016, Schoep wore a black shirt and had a shaved head.

Sitting across from each other at a diner booth, the unlikely pair talked face to face. Without agreeing with anything Schoep said about the separation of races, Davis was able to call the man a friend, look him in the eye and shake his hand.

It was that show of respect that convinced Schoep to listen to Davis, too. According to Schoep, Davis explained that he had been hurt by racist attitudes as a child. He told Schoep a story about people throwing bottles and rocks at him when he was marching in a parade with his Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts in 1968. Schoep was touched by Davis’ experience, but it wasn’t enough to convince him to leave the movement outright.

A couple of years after the Montgomery meeting, Schoep made another new friend: documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan. Khan, who is of Punjabi/Pashtun descent, shared that as a child growing up in Norway, she sometimes felt worthless or unwanted by the world because of her brown skin.

“Meeting people like Daryl and Deeyah was a huge wake-up call,” Schoep said. “I saw the humanity in Daryl and Deeyah and realized that these people are no different than anyone else I was around. They had the same desires, the same wishes.”

When Schoep could no longer see people of different races as “the other” or “the enemy,” he knew he had to leave the neo-Nazi movement in 2019. Now Schoep, 47, is an anti-racism advocate and has spoken at numerous events, including the International Symposium on Radicalization and Extremism. He also started a nonprofit called Beyond Barriers to help de-radicalize others.

“When a person is inside that bubble, they believe that joining the movement is patriotic, good, noble and honorable. Now I see the hypocrisy,” said Schoep. “When you have that dialogue and show a person respect, compassion and empathy, that’s how you reach people. It’s not by dehumanizing them.”

“No one ever left a movement by getting punched in the face,” Schoep added.

It’s advice that can be applied to more common disputes as well.

If you disagree with someone on politics or about what should happen to police departments, if you think someone has an incorrect view of the Black Lives Matter movement, or if you interpret history and statistics differently than that person, both Davis and Schoep recommend that you first seek understanding by listening to the other person’s perspective.

Then you can connect over what you have in common, which is a key part of building trust, they say. Davis and Schoep suggest you express your beliefs in a way that shows your humanity. But that doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything. Real change, Schoep says, takes time.

However, not everyone agrees with this method.

Despite being widely praised for his work, Davis has gotten backlash for his approach. In 2016, he sat down with representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, as part of the same documentary that brought him to Schoep. The young men criticized Davis for focusing on white supremacists — seemingly evil people on the outskirts of society — instead of uplifting the Black community. One of them called Davis’ work a “fetish.”

“Infiltrating the Klan ain’t freeing your people,” the other man said. “You could 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.”

Other critics have called Davis a “sellout” or a “race traitor” for spending so much time befriending white people.

“Something that is pioneering or unusual is always gonna have pushback from the status quo, because people don’t understand,” said Davis, who was later able to make amends with one of the men from Baltimore.

“Racism is a very complex thing,” said Davis.

Davis doesn’t think it’s Black people’s job to change or convert white people who are racist, but it is every American’s job to teach their fellow citizens what is right and what is wrong, regardless of skin color.

After experiencing racism as a kid, Davis was primarily motivated by curiosity to talk to white supremacists. He wanted to find an answer to the question, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”

Ultimately, the world is a better place when we come together, he said.

Daryl Davis is a musician and author on the topic of race relations who has helped over 200 people leave the KKK and other white power movements, in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, June 29, 2020.
Daryl Davis is a musician and author on the topic of race relations who has helped over 200 people leave the KKK and other white power movements, in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, June 29, 2020.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

See humanity in others

The story of friends patiently leading white supremacists away from a life of hate and misery is repeated in the lives of Arno Michaelis, a founding member of what would become the country’s largest racist skinhead organization, and Derek Black, the son of prominent white nationalists who hosted his own radio show as a college student. An African American co-worker at the Milwaukee T-shirt printing shop where Michaelis worked in the late 1980s shared his sandwich when Michaelis had nothing to eat. A Jewish friend at New College of Florida in Sarasota invited Black to weekly Shabbat dinners.

Friendship alone would have been meaningless without a firm denouncement of Black’s hateful views, he said. But kindness along with strong opposition to his beliefs, forced Black to defend and grapple with his ideology.

“We should be mindful that it is not throwing facts at someone, it is personal relationships that change people,” said Black, 31, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago. “That can be really uncomfortable. We should not think that it’s going to be easy.”

Scott Shepherd is a 61-year-old man who lives in the small town of South Haven, Mississippi and once held the title of Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. He began his slow journey to denouncing racism in 1990 when he got a DUI and was sent to rehab at Cumberland Heights in Nashville.

“In rehab, I was exposed to people of all races, religions and sexual preferences, and I found out they weren’t any different than I was,” said Shepherd.

Michael Robinson, 59, a Black man originally from Philadelphia, was admitted to Cumberland Heights at the same time as Shepherd. There’s a story the two men have told and retold over the years, chuckling at the absurdity every time. Robinson had heard Shepherd talking about his activity in the KKK. But instead of fearing Shepherd, he saw an opportunity for a joke. One day he dressed in all white: white pants, white shirt, white socks and shoes, even a white hat.

Then he sauntered over to Shepherd and said, “Hello sir, I’d like to join the KKK!” There was a moment of confusion and then the entire room erupted in laughter.

“From that point on, me and Scott got close,” said Robinson. “He refuted his white racist ideas little by little, and we got tight.”

Rehab was a turning point, but it was still hard for Shepherd to leave the KKK, which had become his one and only social outlet. Years later, at a time when he was contemplating taking his own life or returning to the community of hate, Shepherd reached out to Davis for support, and the two became fast friends. Now Shepherd, who once scorned all Black people, calls Davis a brother.

“He probably saved my life,” Shepherd said.

According to Michaelis, 49, there are similarities in the way we address overt racism and the way we address unconscious biases, although the latter is harder to come to terms with.

“The way to address implicit bias is to practice seeing the divine in every individual human, and to see them as individuals rather than political abstractions,” said Michaelis, who now helps prevent violent extremism through an organization called Parents 4 Peace. “There’s a lot more to every human than being black or white.”

Michaelis believes dogma stops people from having productive conversations when they encounter those with differing views on topics ranging from immigration to abortion, to the upcoming presidential election. Responding to ideas you disagree with by belittling the other person or shutting them down can push them further towards hate.

“Far too many human beings of all backgrounds and political beliefs see kindness as weakness, as if it’s capitulation, it’s rolling over,” said Michaelis. “When really it is a weapon. And one of the most powerful weapons against hate that we have.”