Anti-KKK Activist Daryl Davis Addresses MAGA and Police Racism in New Q&A

Blues pianist Daryl Davis has played with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, The Platters and B.B. King. But now he's found a new calling as a self-described "Rock 'n' Roll Race Reconciliator," meeting with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other racists and convincing them to leave racism behind.

Davis, a Black man, became famous for coaxing members of the Ku Klux Klan away from their racist beliefs through patient dialogue, collecting along the way the robes of dozens of KKK members who renounced their beliefs due, in part, to his intervention. He has converted Grand Wizards and stood up to racist attacks. But in his latest Reddit Ask Me Anything—a form of Q&A, in which people can submit and vote for questions they'd most like to see answered—Davis emphasized that the problem of white supremacy extends far beyond the KKK.

Musician and activist Daryl Davis at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 in New York City. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

White supremacists "are VERY prevalent," Davis said. "If one is not their target, then they are not as obvious. But it is not just the individual racists, it is also systemic and institutionalized racism that is also prevalent. It has been built into our system so deeply that it is practically a way of life until someone decides to address it. Which is what we see happening now."

While Davis has met with racist hate groups since the 1980s, he describes in the current moment a fundamental shift happening among white people more broadly, which has already kindled racially-motivated mass shootings and violence. While his latest AMA touched on his previous work with white supremacist groups, he also addressed how he believes progress can be made to reduce racism in more mainstream institutions and cultural currents, including U.S. police forces and Make America Great Again—or MAGA—supporters of president Donald Trump.

In his final AMA answer, Davis addressed what he sees as a dangerous inflection point in the immediate future of the United States, as white people confront the demographic shift that will result in their proportion of the country's population dropping below 50 percent—becoming a plurality, rather than a majority—sometime around 2045.

"For 401 years, this country has been predominantly white and great strides have been taken to keep it that way," Davis wrote. "There are a great percentage of white people who are okay with that and welcome it without trepidation. But there is also a percentage of white people who are very upset about this shift, because they realize shortly thereafter, whites will become the minority in this country. So they are becoming unhinged and fearful."

Davis collects the robes of former KKK members who have renounced their beliefs. This robe is from a 2011 exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.. Photo by KARIN ZEITVOGEL/AFP via Getty Images

Davis sees that change as a bonanza for white supremacist groups, who fearmonger and recruit around talking points like "the browning of America" or the widespread belief in "White Genocide"—a racist conspiracy theory that views changing demographics as an intentional plot to extinguish white people and destroy a white supremacist conception of racial purity.

But while the demographic shift happening in the United States doesn't meet any of the criteria established by the U.N. for what constitutes a genocide, it has nevertheless become a powerful talking point for white supremacist groups.

Davis believes in listening to the perspectives of white people worried about the changing demographics of the country, even if their fears are premised in falsehoods about minorities, because if anti-racists don't dignify their emotional response and expressed anxiety, more dangerous ideological racists will.

"'We're gonna take our country back. We're gonna build that wall. We're gonna get rid of all these immigrants and send them back to their shithole countries. We're gonna make America great again,' I've heard them all and I personally know a lot of the ones you see out there saying these things," Davis wrote, sharing some of the mainstream Republican calls to action that speak to white people afraid of a less-white future United States.

Davis goes on to compare this mainstreaming of white supremacism to Y2K, which had people afraid of apocalyptic consequences that never manifested.

"For some people the fear of change is real and very disturbing to them," Davis wrote. "So they go out and join these racist groups who want to keep the country the way it is or make it great 'again.'"

While this fear manifests in mainstream political movements, Davis also foresees an increase in lone wolf violence, with racially motivated mass shootings like the 2015 massacre of nine Black people at a Charleston, South Carolina church and the mass killing of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas (believed to be an attack on Latinos, from a shooter who allegedly explicitly invoked demographic change in an online manifesto) representing harbingers of more widespread violence ahead.

"Our country can only become one of two things: (1) it can become that which we sit back and let it become, or (2) it can become that which we stand up and make it become," Davis writes in response, describing it as "incumbent upon all of us," to actively shape our future, rather than allowing the white supremacists to do it for us.

Davis believes respectful listening and open dialogue can create empathy and "work miracles," but argued for a more systematic approach when dealing with racist police departments, some of which Davis believes cannot be fixed, writing that it "depends upon the individual departments across the country as to whether their department can be repaired or should be replaced."

While continuing to urge the opening of lines of communication between communities and police departments, Davis also suggested two concrete measures to mitigate racism in policing.

The first is a "national registry for police officers who've been convicted or fired for egregious behavior," to prevent the shuffling of police from one department to another, which Davis compared to the behavior of the Catholic Church, who repeatedly moved pedophilic priests to new parishes after their abuses came to light, rather than taking steps to prevent more children from being victimized.

In 2014, Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, within seconds of pulling up to the child where he played. Loehmann had joined the Cleveland police force after a stint in a suburban department, where he had faced likely termination because of his emotional instability during weapons training. Cleveland police officials had not reviewed Loehmann's personnel file before hiring him. In 2018, another Ohio police department hired Loehmann, though he soon withdrew his application.

Davis also urged the creation of "a mechanism where good cops can report the bad behavior of the bad cops without fear of retribution," citing NYPD police whistleblower Frank Serpico as proving the need for safer avenues of accountability for police.

While his proposed fixes follow from his individualized approach to anti-racism, it doesn't approach the more systemic redress sought by Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist activists who have filled American streets since the police killing of George Floyd in May. Through marches, protests and demands put to legislators—which may combined represent the largest protest movement in U.S. history—activists have rallied around more fundamental reforms to American policing, including the defunding of police departments and redistribution of those funds to social workers and other non-police methods for redressing social ills.

Davis didn't voice opposition to more dramatic measures like the defunding and dissolution of police forces, but instead kept focused on his one-to-one approach, which sees addressing individual racism as the most fundamental approach.

Most of all, Davis emphasizes that people's views can be changed. In the AMA's most upvoted answer, Davis describes racism as a "learned behavior."

"Therefore, it can be UNLEARNED," he writes. "It may take some time, but it can be done. To your point, not everyone will change. There will be those, as you [the reddit questioner] put it, 'Too far gone,' who will go to their graves being racist, hateful, and violent. But, even if someone like this takes the opportunity to sit down ands have a conversation with you, there is an opportunity to plant a seed which can lead to change. I've seen it and I've proved it."