What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.


Filed under Philosophy, Race and Religion

2 responses to “What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

  1. Hannah

    Great article Ben. A few reflections after reading your post:

    -I appreciate you pointing out that the potential risk for a White person to use the “short-game” approach is markedly less than the potential risk for a Black person to use the short-game approach in confronting a racist – that if Davis had used a short-game approach in his first interaction with Kelly, that risk for a Black person, in the world we live in, could result in death. Daryl Davis’s courage is incredibly admirable and his success so inspiring.

    -There is actually a debate technique/psychological principle (though it has not been empirically tested to my knowledge) that would support the argument that the “long-game” approach is the best way to change minds in the long-run. I just read about the “Ransberger Pivot” technique for the first time a few days ago. This technique involves listening to a companion’s argument, finding common ground, and making a case for why you feel your view more appropriately fits with your companion’s view in the long run. (One could argue that this technique loosely underlay Bernie’s recent speech at Liberty University.)

    -The Ku Klux Klan is a good representative example of how explicit racism manifests in the U.S. I’m also curious to explore how addressing and working to eradicate implicit racism – in our well-intentioned (but sometimes microaggressing) selves, acquaintances, friends, and family – differs from addressing explicit racism in the short-game/long-game approach. On first thought, it seems the long-game approach is most important when challenging our own and others’ implicit views. And still, these implicit stereotypes can perpetuate dangerous assumptions about Black people that allow us to remain complicit in systems of racial inequity, from redlining to gentrification, to neighborhood safety to views about self-determination (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life.)…which suggests that a short-game approach – reality check, bluntness, however it might manifest in these types of contexts – is sometimes necessary with ourselves and our closest circles, the people we are least willing to call out as racists.

    As I reflect now on addressing implicit racism specifically, I’m thinking that If we really want to commit to change our own views that, collectively, have powerful influence in racist policy and structures, we also need to use a short-game approach sometimes with ourselves/close others. Getting uncomfortable is a critical piece to move forward in changing our beliefs – and thereby, the political beliefs underlying the racist structures in our society.

    So maybe the two-pronged approach – again, which is qualitatively different in terms of approach and outcome risks for Black and White people – is valuable in addressing both types of racism.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece.

  2. Thanks, Hannah – all great thoughts! Got to love the Ransberger Pivot (I hadn’t heard it named before, but it’s definitely a good technique).

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