When the K.K.K. leader sputtered that this was ridiculous, Davis agreed: It’s silly to say that white people are predisposed to be serial killers, just as it’s ridiculous to say that Black people have crime genes.
The man went silent, Davis said, and about five months later quit the K.K.K.
Davis claims to have persuaded some 200 white supremacists to leave the Klan and other extremist groups. It’s impossible to confirm that number, but his work has been well documented for decades in articles, videos, books and a TED Talk. He also has a podcast called “Changing Minds With Daryl Davis.”
“Daryl saved my life,” said Scott Shepherd, a former grand dragon of the K.K.K. “Daryl extended his hand and actually just extended his heart, too, and we became brothers.” Shepherd ended up leaving the Klan and gave his robes to Davis.
Davis’s approach seems out of step with modern sensibilities. Today the more common impulse is to decry from a distance.
The preference for safe spaces over dialogue arises in part from a reasonable concern that engaging extremists legitimizes them. In any case, society can hardly ask Black people to reach out to racists, gay people to sit down with homophobes, immigrants to win over xenophobes, women to try to reform misogynists, and so on. Victims of discrimination have endured enough without being called upon to redeem their tormentors.
Yet I do think that we Americans don’t engage enough with people we fundamentally disagree with. There’s something to be said for the basic Davis inclination toward dialogue even with unreasonable antagonists. If we’re all stuck in the same boat, we should talk to each other.
“Daryl Davis demonstrates that talking face-to-face with your ideological opponents can motivate them to rethink their views,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “He’s an extraordinary example of what psychologists have repeatedly shown with evidence: In over 500 studies, interacting face-to-face with an out-group reduced prejudice 94 percent of the time.
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