“How can they hate me if they don’t even know me?”
What I learned from Daryl Davis, my friend who is African American whose life's passion is befriending members of hate groups
It was a crisp late-fall afternoon in Washington, D.C. last past Monday when a long black Cadillac pulled up in front of the Cato Institute, where I had just enjoyed a thoughtful conversation about my book, The Soul of Civility, reflecting on the tenets of a free and flourishing society.
Daryl Davis, a 65-year-old African American jazz pianist, jumped out of the car to greet me before rushing to the passenger side of the car to open it for me.
“A true gentleman,” I thought.
“How refreshing,” I mused as I wracked my brain for the last time that I’d had my car door opened for me by someone other than my husband.
As we headed in the direction of Old Town Alexandria, VA, he asked me for my advice about publishing his second book. I responded a little too enthusiastically, eager to dispense my recently hard-won wisdom in the trenches of book writing and marketing.
We had agreed to grab a bite to eat before my flight home to Indianapolis that afternoon, and we delighted in a bowl of clam chowder after settling on a nice spot overlooking the Potomac River.
Up until that afternoon, Daryl had been my friend only virtually—and only a recent friend at that.
Prior to that, Daryl Davis had been to me merely an idea, an embodiment of a truth that I felt our country—and our world—needed to hear: though we often forget it, we have far more in common as members of the human community than what differs.
“How can they hate me if they don’t even know me?”
Daryl has spent forty years of his life befriending members of hate groups, frequently succeeding in converting them from their morally abhorrent views toward people from other races and ethnicities.
Daryl didn't grow up knowing that racism existed. He had grown up abroad, traveling the world and enjoying elite academic and cultural institutions with his parents, who were diplomats. Attending international schools, he was accustomed to being around people who had different color skin, spoke different languages, ate different food. Those differences for Daryl highlighted an essential truth: that we are all human beings, created in God’s image, unique but also morally and fundamentally equal.
When Daryl was 10, shortly after he and his parents had moved back to the United States, some boys who happened to be white followed him home after school one day. They harassed him. They demeaned him. They threw rocks at him.
Beleaguered and confused, Daryl returned home and was greeted by his concerned parents, who sat him down and told him for the first time what racism was: prejudice and discrimination based on race or ethnicity.
Daryl refused to believe it.
“How can they hate me if they don’t even know me?” he recalled thinking.
And there began his calling to end racism in this world through friendship.
“Music is profession,” Daryl likes to quip. “But race relations is my obsession.”
Every time I speak with Daryl, I learn new stories of how he’s converted people away from their morally abhorrent views about people from other races with curiosity, conversation, friendship and love.
The first time he encountered a Klansman was at a bar in the American South.
After striking up and enjoying a conversation with him a few moments about music—a shared passion of theirs—the man confessed that he was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
And yet, this was the first time he had ever shared a beer with an African American. (The Klansman had a beer, while Daryl, who doesn’t drink, had cranberry juice.)
This puzzled Daryl, who had enjoyed many a beer and meal with white people. Was it really possible that members of the KKK had never actually spent time with people from the ethnic and racial groups whom they claim to despise?
Prejudice often festers in ignorance, a lack of first hand knowledge, he realized.
He decided to do what he could to change that.
Another time, Daryl shared during our visit, he had gone on a trip with several Klansmen to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota— a national treasure of a monument to some of America’s great Presidents—created under the guidance of Gutzon Borglum, a person now known to be a Klansman. By the end of the trip, Daryl was swapping jokes and taking photos with the men who prior to that day would have sworn to hate him.
Daryl showed me photos of him attending Klan rallies, including a provocative photo of him standing with several hooded figures, with a cross burning in the background.
He seeks out the people he knows detest him—he goes to them in their element— because he knows that they will never have an opportunity to get to know him otherwise. Often, he’s permitted to join these rituals because he’s already befriended a Klan leader who deems him “okay.”
“After getting to know me,” Daryl explains, “[members of hate groups] often experience cognitive dissonance that they can’t escape. Their preconceived notions of me don’t match their reality. And they’re forced to change their views.”
To date, Daryl has “converted” over two hundred people from their hateful views toward African American people. Many of them have given them their white robes, pointed caps, and other mementos that symbolize their hate-fulled prior lives, which Daryl often keeps to remind him of the slow but important progress he makes in this line of work.
How did he do it?
“We know you and we still hate you”
It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, people are so calloused, so blinded, by their hate that they wouldn’t even be open to a conversation such as those Daryl pursues.
Daryl showed me some of the hate mail he gets regularly.
“Does this address sound familiar?” the email began menacingly, before listing Daryl’s home address.
“We are coming to your home. We are going to tell your neighbors who and what you really are,” the email continued.
It continued with unrepeatable toxic spew, and ended: “We know you and we still hate you.”
“Sometimes I respond to them,” Daryl said. In this case, the pseudonym of the sender was that of a well-known Klansman from history notorious for lynchings, which Daryl suspected was intended to instill fear in him.
“Does getting notes like that not frighten you?” I asked.
Winston Churchill once famously said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Independent of Churchill, Daryl takes a similar view of the hate he receives:
“It means I’m succeeding in my work.”
“Do as I say, not as I do”
The amount of emotional and psychological fortitude it requires for Daryl to seek out members of neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups is difficult to grasp.
During our visit—which was social in nature, and not originally intended as an interview—I confessed to him that, in my personal life, I often struggle to accept that people can change in my own life.
“Maybe its the Irish in me,” I laughed, “but I find it hard to forgive sometimes."
I’m frequently a captive to the wounds of my past, which I too often allow to cloud my judgment of people and circumstances in my present.
it’s for this reason that I admire Daryl all the more. He’s endured and witness countless instances of racism. And yet he resists the tendency to paint all white people with a broad brush.
Somehow, he has the mental and emotional fortitude to approach each person anew.
In my own life, I struggle to do the same. I of course like to think I’ve grown, changed, improved across my life. When I encounter people after a period of time, I would like them to see me as the person I am now, not the person I once was.
And yet, I have difficulty doing so in practice. When a person hurts me, it’s difficult for me to give them another chance. It’s easy for me view others who might share similar traits to the person who hurt me as equally as threatening or bad to the person who hurt me.
I know this is unfair. But it’s a temptation I struggle with.
Amazing, Daryl resists this.
I confessed to Daryl that, even though I wrote a book on treating others with respect, decency, kindness, and forgiveness, I imperfectly live up to these ideals in my own life.
It’s always easier to tell others to act well than to consistently act well ourselves.
But, I shared with him, just because I’m imperfect in living out my ideals doesn’t negate the ideals themselves. When we see someone living in a way that isn’t aligned with their own self-purported standards, it’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
This logic goes: “This person is a hypocrite, so their ideals must be bunk too.”
But that’s not the case.
Can friendship heal our divides?
Daryl also offered me an idea: next time I encounter someone I’m tempted to see through the lens of past wounds, try to start a conversation about shared loves. That might be enough to displace the hurt of the past, and give you a fresh start in the present.
Daryl’s insight and ecology of the soul reflects that of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the beloved children’s book, The Little Prince, who wrote, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
Why Daryl’s work matters
Why is Daryl Davis’ work important?
In resisting the temptation to dismiss broad swaths of humanity as “racist” and irredeemable, Daryl chooses to to affirm and respect the basic human dignity of his fellow persons and citizens.
He has been hurt by racism, but instead of allowing his wounds to define his experience with all members of hate groups, or even all members of a certain race, he sees them as they are as individuals, unique, imperfect, but worthy of respect and capable of change and redemption.
He resists the temptation to write people off based on one mistake, one bad opinion, and instead chooses to see the part (their racist views) in light of the whole (their dignity as human beings. In my book, The Soul of Civility, I call this idea “unbundling people.” Daryl calls it separating the act or opinion from the person. instead of calling someone a “racist,” Daryl prefers to call them “a person who holds a racist view.” A person is not the sum total of their opinions, even toxic ones.
Civility requires that we “unbundle” people. We must choose to see the part—the mistake or bad view of the world— in light of the whole—the irreducible dignity we have as human beings, and the bare minimum of respect we are owed, and owe to others, to others in light of that.
Just as we unbundle people individually—seeing their mistakes along side their virtues and human dignity—we must unbundle our experiences. Daryl is also a model to us for how to do this.
Daryl sees each person he meets (including members of hate groups) as individuals, whom he treats on their own terms. He doesn’t view them as an extension of, or interchangeable with, similar people who he’s met before. This is dehumanizing, reductionistic, essentializing, and degrading of the dignity of the other.
In an era that traffics in group think and stereotype, this is why Daryl’s work matters.
It’s why I’m so thankful that he is my friend, and that I have someone like him in my life to inspire me and challenge me to live up to my own ideals in my personal life each day.
It’s why I’m glad to be part of the Pro Human Foundation with him—sometime I’ll share more about soon.
It’s why I hope you’ll join us in this work of social, racial, cultural healing—so direly needed in these divided days.
On the first leg of my book tour this fall that I’ve just completed—third events and eighteen cities in eight weeks with two kids!—I virtually always got asked the question: “But what can we do when the other side or person is so bad that they’re not worth talking to?”
I tend to answer this timely and important question with Daryl’s story.
If Daryl Davis can do it, we can, too.
The Soul of Civility: The perfect Christmas Gift!
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My book is about the most important question of our day: How might we flourish amid deep difference?
I have joked at my book events this fall that The Soul of Civility is the perfect gift—it’s great for your best friend or your worst enemy! :)
Here’s what a few thoughtful people and outlets have said about the book:
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—Mitch Daniels, former Governor of Indiana
— Wall Street Journal
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“Elegant and articulate.”
— Tyler Cowen
“A wonderful book.”
— Jonathan Haidt
“This is a marvelous book! I stayed up last night until about 1:30 am carefully reading Chapter 8, which explores how civility supports civil society. Hudson’s prescriptions are just what our country needs.”
—Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law, Yale Law School
“The Soul of Civility is a wonderful book and quite an exercise in scholarship. I am rarely tempted to compare a book with Montaigne’s Essays, but indeed I do here. This is a timeless book that should be on shelves forever.”
―Hugh Hewitt, host of The Hugh Hewitt show
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