"How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"
Daryl Davis is a black American musician who has spent much of the last twenty years or so talking with and befriending members of the KKK. Once they get to know him, they mostly like him. And that’s what this film is (ostensibly) about.
Naturally, of course, it’s also about the wider issues at play: how to deal with racism (and particularly those with extreme racist views), the state of race politics in America and the wider world, the resurgence (and normalisation) of racism and extreme right-wing political groups….
But to me, the film is Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King.
Martin X vs Malcolm Luther King.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader and non-violent civil disobedience exponent, could justifiably say to President Lyndon Johnson: “Deal with me or you will have to deal with Malcolm X.”, knowing this to be a scary prospect for white ‘liberals’, let alone white ‘conservatives’.
Malcolm X scared the shit out of white America. And made people really angry. But Martin Luther King may have been more of a threat, politically. As well as making people really angry.
After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the civil rights movement had the federal government onside. That era seems like the logical conclusion of the US civil war; the southern states had to continue with segregation in defiance of federal law. “It’s a states’ rights issue” was now revealed as a fig leaf for “I want states to have the right to legally discriminate against their black populations.”
Martin Luther King’s approach was to show white America the injustice perpetrated in their name, to challenge them to choose a side: are you with us, your fellow Americas, or with the racist cops who openly defy federal law to enforce segregation with violence.
Malcolm X, as part of the Nation of Islam, advocated for total separation of the races. Which is almost exactly what the KKK wanted. So, to make a laboured point, the extremes on either side have more in common that they think.
As evidenced in the film when a ‘Grand wizard’ of the KKK tells a crowd he has more respect for Daryl Davis, a black man, than for all the white people who won’t listen to him tell them about race war…
Daryl Davis takes the Dr King approach.
Daryl Davis is so familiar with the KKK’s traditions, terms and rituals that he knows better than some members what their position is. He’s in deep (to the knowledge, not the actual KKK). He’s got a collection of robes given to him by former members who have left the Klan and gifted him the robes, seemingly as a gesture of thanks and friendship – an acknowledgement that he has changed their mind.
The Malcolm X approach is represented in the film by Black Lives Matter activists in Baltimore, who contend that Daryl Davis’s collection of Klan robes has not helped black people. The exchange is heated, and is like a micropolitical version of the macro arguments that have never gone away but drift in and out of popular consciousness (ie, TV and mainstream politics). There is anger and accusation on both sides, and it’s not hard to see why revolutionaries fall out with each other in the face of a powerful common enemy.
I remember hearing someone on TV talking about Muhammad Ali, who said, in plaintive fashion, something like “How can anyone listen to Muhammad Ali, or watch him box, and conclude that black people are not human, or not capable?” At first, I thought that sounded fair enough, but the more I thought about it, the more it angered me. Would it be ok to view a section of society as subhuman if they didn’t have this popular representative? Why do black people need a charismatic ambassador to go on TV just convince others of their humanity? Centuries after the end of chattel slavery, how is there still a debate about that? Who really believes black people are not human? Who really believed it in 1964? And do we have to remind ourselves that Ali, like King, was reviled for his political decisions in the 1960s?
And this brings us to the crux of the argument: it’s not that masses of white people consciously believe and will argue that black people are less than human; it’s that the system based partly on that assumption they were not was never completely overthrown. To use a more recent example, it’s not that white Americans believe in their own racial superiority en masse – it’s that enough of them decided it was ok to elect an openly racist demagogue threatening racial strife to the highest office in the land. It’s that white people marching American streets chanting Nazi slogans is not much of a threat, but a mixed-race President is apparently an intolerable threat; hence a political career launched on the total negation of Barack Obama – not just his policies, his identity. (As discussed in thisexcellent article by Ta-Nihisi Coates.)
Once we accept the basic equality of humans, we have to work towards making it a reality in the world where humans live, rather than some kind of abstracted ideal. And a lot of people just don’t want the trouble of doing that work.
“Now is not the time” – people would often say that to Martin Luther King and everyone in the civil rights movement. It is as hollow and repressive as “now is not the time to think about gun control” in the days following a mass shooting. Or the “protest on your own time, not at a sporting event” arguments against Colin Kaepernick and others in the NFL.
“We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr
“It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it'll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn't integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.”
The march he’s talking about there is the one where Dr King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech. Malcolm X was controversial – like you have to be, if you want to shake things up. (If it doesn’t upset anyone, it’s not a protest – or, at least, not an effective one.)
King’s approach was to go to the federal government, with great numbers of people behind him, to demand that it live up to its promises, and compel southern states to do the same. Malcolm X, as part of the Nation of Islam, declared that black people could never be free in America – since the freedom of black people was never part of the American Dream, and the American Dream was built on the exploitation of black slaves – and could only get freedom and self-determination through separation. It was partly a tactical difference: either show injustice by standing up to it and non-violently enduring it, or defend yourself from oppression and assert your rights by any means necessary. Either talk to your enemies, or fight them.
As an outsider looking in, with all the detachment and tendency to abstract thinking that brings, my conclusion is that there is, and must be, room for both approaches. As Malcolm X seemed to conclude toward the end of his life, after leaving the Nation of Islam – and as Dr King always believed, evidenced in all the writing and speeches to which Presidents and sanctimonious commentators never refer, where he opposed the war in Vietnam, when he opposed capitalism and declared poverty the greatest problem in America…the two men got closer in their thinking towards the end of their lives.
Both were a major threat to the status quo. Both were assassinated.
Both were a major threat to the status quo. Both were assassinated.
The film does a good job of showing both sides of the argument whilst telling one person’s remarkable story.
The film concludes with a rumination on the election of Donald Trump – a person who is neither serious nor funny, neither honest enough to be even more overtly racist nor intelligent enough to sound less racist. Thankfully for everyone, most people in America are not so stupid and weak. Unfortunately for everyone, one of the worst of them is President – and white supremacy is in the ascendency, since enough white people decided to vote for it, however much they might claim not to be racist.
The last President, Barack Obama (fortunately for everyone, an adult), seemed to believe in the innate goodness of Americans – and, like Daryl Davis, that talking is better than not talking. How much that benefitted him (or anyone else) is an open question.
“Not all Trump voters are racist but all racists voted for Trump.”
The idea of talking to people who hate you is brave. The idea that it’s also helpful, in and of itself, and can be successful, outside those individual conversations…is…contentious? I like to think it’s worth it, in and of itself, that little things make a difference – that everything we do makes a difference, as unpredictable as the outcomes may be. But I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to try it if I were a black person in America.
These questions are not new, but the stakes seem to be getting higher. If there were more people like Daryl Davis, and fewer like the current President, the world would be a much better place to live.
Is that conclusive enough?