The Good Fight
Daryl Davis on Befriending the Klan

Daryl Davis on Befriending the Klan

Yascha Mounk and Daryl Davis discuss his lifetime of convincing Ku Klux Klan members to renounce racism.

Daryl Davis is an American R&B and blues musician, author and social activist. Davis estimates he has been the direct or indirect cause for over 200 conversions from the Klan. He is also co-founder of the Prohuman Foundation.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Daryl Davis discuss how a childhood experience with racism inspired him to interview and befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan; the importance of remaining “pro-human” even in the face of hatred and bigotry; and whether his faith in humanity feels out of tune with the current political moment.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You have a really interesting life story, and we'll get into some of the fascinating encounters you've had in your life. But just to set the stage, your father was a Foreign Service officer and you grew up in all kinds of different countries before moving to Belmont, Massachusetts when you were pretty young. 

What happened in Belmont around the age of 10 that sort of gave the spark to some of your later work?

Daryl Davis: Let's go back before that so you understand why I perceive things the way I did at the age of 10. My father and mother were in the US Foreign Service, and so I began traveling around the world as an American embassy kid at the age of three in 1961. My first introduction to school was overseas. And how it works is you're assigned to the American embassy in a foreign country for two years. And then at the end of that assignment, you return home to the States, to wherever you want to go. 

My first introduction to school was overseas. I did kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, all in different countries, in different schools with different people. But every time I was in school overseas, my classes were filled with kids from all over the country. Because this person sitting next to me here might have been from Japan, this one from Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, wherever. Anybody who had an embassy where we were assigned, all of their kids went to the same school. So naturally that became my baseline for what school was supposed to be. But every time I'd come back home here to my own country, I would either be in all black schools or black and white schools, meaning the still segregated or the newly integrated. 

I had just come back home from abroad. I was in fourth grade and it was 1968. I was one of two black students in the entire school. So consequently, all of my friends that I played with were white. I joined the Cub Scouts. And I was the only black Scout anywhere in the area. We had moved to Boston and the schools were so bad that after a couple of weeks we moved to Belmont. And we had a parade from Lexington to Concord. I was the only black participant in this parade. I didn't think anything of it. And we're marching, the streets are blocked off, sidewalks are lined with nothing but white people waving and cheering, smiling, and yelling the British are coming and all that. So we got to a certain point in the parade route when suddenly, pow, I'm getting hit with bottles and soda pop cans and other debris from the street by a small group of white spectators off to my right. I turned to look to see what was going on and I see them and I'm thinking to myself, you know, these people over here, for whatever reason, they don't like the Scouts. That's how naive I was because I've never experienced anything like this, right? And It wasn't until my Scout leaders, who also were all white, came running and covered me with their own bodies and quickly escorted me out of the danger, that I realized I’m the only Scout getting the special protection.

At the end of the march, I went home and my parents saw me and they asked me, how did you fall down and get all scraped up? And I told them, I didn't fall down. I told them what had happened. And for the first time in my life, my mom and dad sat me down and explained to me what racism was. Now, Yascha, believe it or not, I had never heard the word racism. I had no clue what they were talking about because that word and that behavior did not exist in my life overseas, right? I was around everybody. There was no racism. We all got along. Maybe we didn't look alike. We didn't speak the same language. But we played together. We worked together. Went to school together. We had slumber parties together. Racism did not exist in my world. So when my parents were telling me this, my ten-year-old brain could not process the idea that somebody who had never spoken to me, who knew absolutely nothing about me, never seen me before, would want to hurt me for no other reason than the color of my skin. 

Mounk: You went on to a distinguished musical career. But this question always gnawed at you. And so tell us about how, as you matured, you started to investigate that question and how did that lead you to try to make contact with, of all things, members of the Ku Klux Klan?

Davis: Yes, music became my profession, but studying race relations became my obsession. Even at that young age and through my adolescent years, I began collecting all kinds of books on black supremacy, white supremacy, the Nazis, the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan,  anti-Semitism—I wanted to read and learn as much as I could because I didn't understand it. And my books did not explain why, at least to my satisfaction. 

After I graduated with my degree in music, I began playing full-time professionally and then there came a point where country music had returned; a movie called Urban Cowboy with John Travolta was a big hit. A lot of the bars and clubs switched their format from Top 40 and disco to country music. So I joined a country band and I was the only black guy in the band. They were pretty well established here in Maryland. And they had played a place called the Silver Dollar Lounge up in a town called Frederick, Maryland, which is about an hour and twenty minutes from Washington, D.C. I knew the Silver Dollar Lounge by its reputation for being an all-white bar. There were no signs that said whites only, but you knew the reputation. And if you go somewhere where you're not welcome and alcohol is being served, sometimes it's not a good combination, right?

Mounk: Presumably you went in with a good amount of trepidation. 

Davis: You know, I've never feared things like that. I don't know why, but I did not go in with fear. I saw some people looking at me like…. And then once I started playing, people were dancing and carrying on. I was playing what they liked, I guess. I was aware of the reputation, but hey, you know, I'm a human being, it's a public place, I'm gonna go, right? I have a job to do. 

Well, after the first set, the band took a break and I'm following them over to go sit down at some band table and I felt somebody behind me reach across my shoulder and put his arm around my shoulder. And that's when the trepidation happened. But the guy is smiling, a big smile on his face. And he's probably 20 years older than me. And he says, man, I sure love y’all's music. I said, thank you. And he pointed at the stage. And he said, I've seen this here band before, but I ain't never seen you before. Where did you come from? I said this is my first time. He says, man, this is the first time I ever heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis. 

I was not offended, but I was surprised by that: this guy is so much older than me, why did he not know the origin of Jerry Lee Lewis's piano style? And I told him Jerry Lee got it from the same place I did, from black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players. He said no, Jerry Lee created that. I ain't never heard no black man play like that, except for you. And so I said, look, I know Jerry Lee Lewis. He's a very good friend of mine. He told me himself. He didn't believe I knew Jerry Lee. He didn't believe Jerry Lee learned anything from black people, but he was so fascinated with me, he wanted me to come back to his table and let him buy me a drink. I don't drink alcohol, but I agreed to go back to his table and I ordered a cranberry juice. He paid for it and then he took his glass and he clinked my glass. And he says, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man. And I was mystified, like how can this be? So innocently, I said, why? And he looked down at the table. He didn't say anything. I asked him again. And his friend sitting next to him said, “Tell him, tell him, tell him.” And he says, “I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” And I started laughing because I know a lot about the Ku Klux Klan. I have all kinds of books on the Klan. I've read them all. And they don't just come up and hug a black guy and want to buy him a drink and hang out. So this guy must be joking.

He goes in his pocket, pulls out his wallet, and hands me his Klan membership card. Like, whoa. I recognize the Klan emblem, which is a red circle with a white cross and a red blood drop in the center. This is for real. You know, so I stopped laughing because it wasn't funny anymore, right? I gave it back to him, but he was very, very friendly. And we talked about the Klan and other things. He gave me his phone number. He wanted me to call him whenever I was to return to the Silver Dollar Lounge because he wanted to bring his friends, meaning Klansmen and Klanswomen, to see, as he put it, the black guy who plays like Jerry Lee. I'm not sure he called me the black guy to his friends, but that's how he explained it to me.

So I'd call him every six weeks and say, hey man, you know, we're going to be down at the Silver Dollar. Come on out. I'd call him on Wednesday or Thursday. He'd come down both nights, Friday and Saturday. And he'd bring Klansmen and Klanswomen. And they'd come near the stage and watch me play and they'd dance to our music. And then on the breaks, you know, I'd try to go by his table, say hello, thank you for coming, etc. Most of them, except for maybe two of them, would hang out at the table. They were curious about me. And we would shake hands and sit down and talk. And then at the end of that year, I quit the band, and I went back to playing rock and roll and blues. 

A few years later, it dawned on me. I mean, I was still trying to learn as much as I could, but it dawned on me, Daryl, you blew your opportunity, the answer to your question that's been plaguing you since the age of 10, how can you hate me when you don't even know me? It fell right into your lap and you didn't realize it. Get back in contact with that Klansman, right? Get him to fix you up with the Klan leader from Maryland. Go around the country, interview people up north, down south, midwest, west, Klan leaders, Klan members, and ask that question and write a book. Because no book had been written by a black author on the Ku Klux Klan from in-person interviews. There had been two books written by black authors that dealt with the Klan, but each author detailed how he escaped a lynching, one in the 1930s and the other one in the 1940s, but not from the perspective of sitting down interviewing your prospective lyncher, right? 

Mounk: So this person that you met in the bar then connects you to more senior members of the organization and you interview them for the book. How do those encounters go? Presumably those are people who may be even more ideologically committed, if they're higher up in the organization. They may feel like they have even more to lose from engaging with you with an open mind. How did you build relationships with them and what was the impact of that?

Davis: Like I said, this guy was not at the point of changing the first time he met me. But the more he saw me, the more we talked, the more he learned. And his curiosity expanded and we became friends.

A few years later, when I realized I missed my opportunity, I tried to call him and the number had been disconnected. It took me a couple of weeks to track him down. He did not have a phone, but he had an address. So I got the address. There was no way for me to notify him in advance, So I just showed up one evening at his apartment. Now this is a couple years later, And he opens the door and he goes, Daryl, what are you doing here? And he steps out into the hallway and looks up and down the hallway to see if I brought anybody with me or something. And when he stepped out of his apartment, I stepped in. So he turns around, he comes back in, he goes, Hey, what's going on, man? Are you still playing?” I said, I'm still playing. But I want to talk to you about the Klan. He goes, But I quit the Klan. He had had some epiphany or whatever, as he tried to explain. But that's another story. He didn't quit. He got kicked out, as I found out later on. 

Mounk: Wait, so now you can't tease us with this and not tell us more. So how did he get kicked out? Did that have anything to do with him starting to change his mind or was it for unrelated reasons?

Davis: No, what happened was—okay, back then there's a place called Stone Mountain, Georgia. And Stone Mountain was pretty much owned by a Klan leader since the 1920s. And every Labor Day, he would have a massive rally of all the Klan chapters around the country to come on top of Stone Mountain and they'd set a cross on fire and have this unity meeting because the Klan had fragmented. There were many Ku Klux Klan groups that were autonomous. Klan chapters if they were close by, they'd all go. If they were far away, they might send one or two representatives. He was chosen to represent Maryland by the Klan leader here. And money was given to him to pay his way to Stone Mountain. And he was supposed to go there, represent Maryland, and come back and give a report to this chapter. Well, when the meeting time came, he came and gave a report. And something was wrong with the report. I don't remember exactly what. But the Klan leader says something doesn't sound right. And so he called the clan leader down in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Turns out this guy never showed up. He is a big wrestling fanatic. And he had taken the money and gone to the arena here in Maryland to watch Hulk Hogan wrestle! 

Mounk: So he got kicked out for, in a minor way, embezzling money from the Klan. That may be one of the few cases in which two wrongs make a right.

Davis: Exactly. And that happens a lot, by the way, the embezzlement part, especially with the leaders. Anyway, he got out and he began making other friends and seeing other things because he was no longer surrounded by that echo chamber reinforcing his previous worldview, so that helped a lot.

During the conversation, I asked him to introduce me to Roger Kelly, who at the time was the Klan leader for Maryland. He did not want to do it. He was fearful for his safety and for my safety. And I said, well, you're not in the Klan anymore. He goes, Daryl, it would not matter, you don't understand the reach. And I said, well, look, give me Roger Kelly's address and phone number. He didn't want to do that. but I persuaded him to after I agreed that I would not reveal to Mr. Kelly where I got his personal information. He warned me. He said, Daryl, do not fool with Roger Kelly. Roger Kelly will kill you. And he was very concerned about my safety, which I appreciated. But my answer to that was, that's exactly why I need to see him. Why would he kill me? Just because I'm black? This is the mentality I need to understand. So I want to get it right from Mr. Kelly's mouth.

I could have called Roger Kelly myself, but I decided if I called him, he might detect in my voice that I'm black and say, I'm not talking to you, click, and my whole project would have ended before it ever started. So my secretary at the time was white, and I asked her to call, because I figured if she calls, he would know automatically the voice on the other end of the phone is a white woman. And I know the mentality enough to know that he would not automatically think this white woman is working for a black man, especially a black man who's writing a book on the Klan. She understood, she called him, and he agreed to the interview. He didn't ask what color I was. So we set it up for a motel room in Frederick, Maryland. 

Mounk: Why is it that you wanted to meet him in person, even though obviously at that point, you walk into the motel room and he would immediately know that you're black?

Davis: Again, you know, I never think about those things. I don't have that kind of fear. I'm a human being, he's a human being. I mean, if the crap hits the fan, I will deal with it. I've had to do that. I've walked into situations and I've been attacked. You know, I'm not going to sit there and let somebody beat on me. I've put people in the hospital. I've put people in jail for putting their hands on me. I'm not a violent person by nature. But I can become very violent if somebody is going to attack my well-being. But I wasn't really thinking about that kind of thing. I'm just a human being talking to another human being.

Mounk: And do you think that that kind of willful blindness to the social realities is part of the power of how you approach these situations? And do you think that part of what allows them to enter a different space is that you simply say, look, I'm just going to treat you like any other human being, and I'm going to act as though you're going to treat me as any other human being. How big a part do you think of the success in how you've spoken to these people comes from just pretending that that social reality doesn't exist?

Davis: Well, I wasn't pretending. I knew it existed. But you have a point there. And I would say, most likely, Yascha, if I had not had all that travel experience in my past and been exposed to different cultures, ideologies, religions, et cetera, if I had grown up here my whole life, would I have done this whole project? Maybe not. Maybe I would stay as far away from those people as possible. In any event, I was not fearful. I wanted to meet the person, not talk to him on the phone. I wanted to meet this person and you tell me how you can hate me when you don't know me. That's all I want to know. And then I will thank you and we'll part. And here's where a lot of the media does not really give the true narrative: I never set out to convert anybody. When you see my name in the media, it will say a black musician converted X number of KKK or white supremacists—no, I did not convert anybody. I am the impetus for over 200 to convert themselves

Mounk: And so you met with the head of the KKK in Maryland simply to ask him this question. How did the meeting go?

Davis: So we got to the motel. Mary and I got there super early and I gave her some money and I sent her down the hall to get a soda pop out of the vending machine and I'll put it in the ice bucket, put ice in there and get it cold. I had no idea what this man was gonna do. All I knew about Mr. Kelly was, “Daryl, do not fool with Roger Kelly, he will kill you.” This is coming from one of his former members, right? So I had that in the back of my head.

I had no idea what he was gonna do. I knew I was going to be hospitable and offer the man a cold beverage. Just like if you or anybody else were to come to my house, I would offer you a cold beverage. I put the table in the most obscure corner of the room. And I put a chair on one side for Mr. Kelly, a chair on the other side for me. And beside my chair, I had a little black canvas bag in which I had a recorder and I had a copy of the Bible, because the Ku Klux Klan claims to be a Christian organization, and they claim that the Bible preaches racial separation. Now, I've read the Bible, I'm a Christian. So I want to be able to reach down, pull out my Bible and say Mr. Kelly, please show me the chapter and verse where it says that blacks and whites must be separate. Right on time, there's a knock on the door. I'm seated back where you cannot see me from the door. Mary gets up, goes around the corner, opens the door. In walks the bodyguard for the Klan leader. He's a Klansman too, right? He's wearing military camouflage, got that red circle, white cross, blood drop patch. And on his cap it says Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And he has a semi-automatic handgun on his hip. He turns the corner and he sees me and just freezes. And then Mr. Kelly is on the other side of the corner. He does not know that his bodyguard has stopped. So he comes around the corner and hits the guy in the back and knocks him forward. And they both are stumbling around trying to get their balance. And they're like looking all around the room and I'm sitting at the table looking at them and I can read their faces: Did the desk clerk give us the wrong room number or is this an ambush? So I stood up and I bared my palms and so they see I'm not holding any kind of weapon and I walked forward, I extended my right hand, I said, Hi Mr. Kelly, I'm Daryl Davis. He shook my hand and then the bodyguard shook my hand. I said please come on in, have a seat. We got on with the interview. And every time Mr. Kelly would say, Mr. Davis, the Bible says, I would reach down and pull out my Bible and hand it to him. Every time I reached down like this, the bodyguard would reach up and put his hand on the handle of the gun. If my tape ran out, I'd reach down to get a fresh tape, he'd reach up. I understood that. That's his job. I am the enemy. I'm the black guy. I'm the enemy. After about 45 minutes of me reaching down he finally relaxed. 

Maybe a little bit over an hour into this interview, Mr. Kelly and I are just talking casually, and out of nowhere, there was a sudden, very short, very fast noise in the room, like a ch-ch. And we all jumped, like, what was that, right? And I came up out of my chair, and I hit the table. The noise was too fast and too short for my ear to discern what it was. In my ignorance, I perceived it to be a threatening noise. In that moment, I feared for my life. I am not armed. Mary is not armed. The only person who I know who is armed for sure is the bodyguard. Mr. Kelly's wearing a suit and tie. Does he have a weapon up under his suit jacket? I don't know. And that's when I flew out of my chair. I was on my way to dive across that table, grab the bodyguard, grab Mr. Kelly and slam them down to the ground and take away the bodyguard's gun. Because my life is in danger. It's my job to protect myself and my secretary. So I was on my way to doing that. And when I hit the table, I'm only less than a foot from Mr. Kelly's face. And I'm looking right into his eyes. I did not say one word. My eyes were speaking for me: What did you just do? But his eyes were saying to me, what did you just do? 

Mary was sitting to my left on top of the dresser, because there were no more chairs. She realized what had happened. And she began explaining it when it happened again: The bucket of a soda pop, the ice bucket, was sitting to her left, and the ice was melting, and the cans of soda were falling down the ice. That was it. Somebody almost got shot or hurt over a melting ice cube. 

Mounk: And so you've been talking and slowly becoming more at ease with each other, clearly not fully at ease with each other. I mean, if we sat down and had dinner and something like that happened, people wouldn't jump up at each other, right? Did the resolution of that moment establish more trust because you're like, my God, we were nearly at each other's throats? Once you figured out what it was, did that ease or increase the tension?

Davis: We all began laughing, all of us. And this was a teaching moment. I won't say that it was a learning moment. The learning would come later. 

We began laughing. We kept on talking. It kept making the noise. We'd laugh some more and talk. It's hard enough to picture a black man and a Klan leader sitting in a room together. But picture a black man and a Klan leader sitting in a room together laughing together. It humanized each of us. We are human beings. We all felt fear. We all felt humor when the fear was alleviated, and relief. Now, we didn't realize it that day, but in retrospect, looking back on it, after a couple of days, we realized, wow, he felt the same thing I felt. And when the fear was removed, we both felt relief. Anyway, we continued the interview, got through it. I thanked Mr. Kelly, shook his hand. And he gave me his card, the same kind of card the other guy had, and he told me to keep in touch. And I said, I will let you know when I finish interviewing people around the country and write the book.

Mounk: To take a brief step back, Daryl, did he answer your question? Did what he said help you understand in any way, or did the answer seem so irrational and unconvincing that it didn't really help you sort of figure that out?

Davis: I understood it wasn't rational, but I understood why he thought that way. Okay, so I asked him, like I would ask anybody, how can you hate me? 

Well, Mr. Davis, he said, you have to understand something: Black people are prone to crime. And this is evidenced by the fact that there are more black people in prison than white people. The statistics show that. He is 100% correct. Not that we are more prone to crime, but there are more black people in prison, okay? And because these statistics and the data align with this point of view, he uses that as reinforcement. But the data only tells you how many people are there. The data does not tell you why they're there; not in all cases, but in a lot of cases, in some cases, black people are sentenced to prison for longer terms than white people for the same crime. All right? So he doesn't want to hear that. He doesn't bother to research that. All he knows is the data shows what he already believes. 

He's telling me that I'm a criminal and that I have a small brain, that I'm dumb. He doesn't know me. Why should I be offended by a lie? If my mother or father told me, Daryl, we think you're prone to crime, or Daryl, you're kind of dumb, maybe I would believe them. But not somebody who doesn't know me. So it's very important that you study the opposition and you know who you are before going into that situation. Because if you don't know who you are and you go into that kind of situation, they are going to tell you who you are and you might walk out believing them.

Mounk: So the story you tell is incredibly powerful and obviously it’s helped to have a bigger impact on some of these figures you describe actually changing their minds and leaving the Klan. You have a collection of white robes that they've gifted to you as I suppose a form of respect towards you and a form of very strong symbol that they've renounced their previous form of use. 

Now, as I'm listening to you, I'm wondering about this political moment and it feels to me—and I don't know how you feel personally about him as a politician—that I'm listening to the same kind of political spirit that somebody like Barack Obama has, who always emphasized that we can speak to each other and be respectful to each other even across the vastest political differences; you know the famous phrase that “if they go low we go high.” Even if this person who's sitting down with you has these hateful views, you're not going to hate him in turn. You're going to, in a way, embarrass him into reconsidering his position by being unfailingly polite and by being unfailingly open-minded to somebody who isn't inclined to be open-minded towards you. 

I find this to be very powerful. I came to the United States to start my PhD in 2007, and one of the things that made me fall in love with this country was the optimistic spirit of the Obama campaign and some of those kinds of views. We're now in a moment in which it feels to me that that basic attitude has become a lot less fashionable—not just on big parts of the right that are, I think, celebrating confrontation (and, in part, hatred) in a way that people like John McCain or Mitt Romney weren't, but also on parts of the left. When The New York Times after 2016 went to speak to people in diners in order to understand why they might vote for Donald Trump, that was cast as terrible, because you shouldn't try to have empathy or understanding for people who vote for a political figure like that, you should simply condemn them, right? But your dignity is not going to be undermined by the fact that this person has a negative opinion of you, right? Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words won't, right? You have the inherent self-driven dignity to not be offended. Today we're in a culture where many people might say, no, you should be offended and you shouldn't shake this person's hand. 

Do you feel that the set of attitudes that drive your work have gone out of fashion in a certain kind of way and if so is that something you rue about this political moment?

Davis: Yeah, I mean, the golden rule, which is treat others as you want to be treated, has certainly seemed to have fallen by the wayside or gone out of fashion, as you put it. Those things need to be brought back. Cancel culture seems to be the current trend. And cancel culture needs to be canceled. Speaking of all the robes and hoods and things I have, like I said, I've been doing this for 42 years now and I have Mr. Kelly's robe and hood. He and I became very good friends.

Most Americans do not travel. According to our US Census Bureau, less than 50% of Americans even own a passport. Europeans, they travel all the time. Does that make them better human beings than somebody else? No. Does all the travel that I've done make me a better human being? No. But it does give me a better and broader view of humanity. I've seen things that work, where people of all different races, colors, ethnicities, religions, cultures are together and they get along. So I want to show people here, my own fellow countrymen, black or white, teach them vicariously to understand this. But if you're not exposed to it, you don't know. I'm a firm believer that a missed opportunity for conversation is a missed opportunity for reconciliation.

Right now in our country we're experiencing a demographic shift, but it's going to come to a head in the year 2042. Only 18 years from now, this country will be 50-50. 50% white, 50% non-white, meaning black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific, Native American, and others. Between 2045 and 2050, it's going to flip, and whites, for the first time, will become the minority. There is a vast number of white people in this country who don't care. They say, hey. No big deal, that's evolution, I don't have a problem with that. But there is a large slice of our population that does care. And those are the ones that I deal with. And they say, Daryl, I don't want my grandchildren to be brown. They call it the browning of America, or white genocide through miscegenation, race mixing. And when I first started doing this work, there were basically three supremacist groups: the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white-power skinheads. Today you got the Klan, the neo-Nazis, white-power skinheads, the alt-right, the Patriot Front, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and on and on. And they're all saying, come join us, we're gonna take back our country. They believe, and they'll tell you, this country was discovered by white people, we built this country, we wrote the Constitution, and now people are coming here who don't look like us, and they're squeezing us out of our own country. That's their mentality. And they truly think that they are patriots and they have to save the country. So they run and join these groups that promise to take back the country. But when the group does not take back the country fast enough, some of these people get frustrated and anxious and they say, you know what, if the Klan can't do it, or the neo-Nazis can't do it, I'll do it myself. They walk into a black church in South Carolina and murder nine black people doing Bible study. They walk into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and murder 11 Jewish people. The Buffalo grocery Store, the Walmart in El Paso where they murdered 23 Hispanic people. The Sikh Indian Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. These people are called lone wolves. And as we get closer and closer to 2042, unfortunately, we are going to see more and more of these lone wolf attacks because they're becoming unhinged. And they think that it's their mission to save the country. 

Mounk: So let me ask you something about this demographic shift. On one description, I think all the facts you marshaled are exactly right in terms of the percentage of the population that falls into these different demographic buckets in the census and how that's changed over time. And so the US Census Bureau has predicted that America will become majority-minority at some point in the 2040s. And it jumps around a little bit: sometimes 2044, sometimes 2042. 

On one description, I agree with all of that: If you're going to count up all of the people in 2042, let's say, who have a drop of African-American blood, who have some kind of origin in Latin America, who have some origin on the continent of Asia, then they're going to constitute a majority. But I do worry a little bit about the way that we describe this, both on empirical descriptive grounds and on normative grounds. Empirically, I wonder whether it makes sense to divide people into these two broad buckets of whites on one side and people of color on the other side; because, for example, it will contain many people who have three white grandparents and one Latino grandparent, or one Asian grandparent or one black grandparent. Are they going to see themselves naturally as part of one group that has no kind of relation, no kind of content, no kind of cultural heritage from the white part of America? I'm somewhat doubtful of that. Many Latinos define themselves in part by their European ethnic origins. Somebody who has one white parent and one black parent is counted as black in the United States and often will see themselves as black in the United States, but on the continent of Africa, they might be seen as white or as some other kind of more complicated racial designations in places like South Africa, right? 

But what I'm aiming to say, just to put this question to you, is on the normative level, how should we think about America? Should we embrace this description that by 2042 it's going to be majority-minority and that's this huge shift? Or shall we say, no, hang on a second? Yes, the underlyings empirics are right. But if the country develops in the right direction, then that will not be as salient as it is in the minds of some of those lone wolves, of some of those hate groups. And people will recognize that the underlying sociological reality in the country is way more complicated than that; that many so-called people of color are going to have these deep links to white America. And many people who perhaps have exclusively white parents and grandparents may at that point have a spouse who's non-white or a family member who is not a blood relation or a niece or nephew and so on who's non-white. And so this idea that we have these two blocs and we should count them up against each other in this way is driving people to the kind of fear that you're talking about. And perhaps we should be a little bit more skeptical in how we talk about that reality precisely to not give fodder to that kind of view that white people used to be in the majority and now, speaking from my perspective, we are no longer going to be in the majority and that's going to be this great danger. Perhaps we have to resist that description of the actual underlying trends.

Davis: Yascha, you're speaking as a person of rationale. But we are not dealing with logical and rational mindsets, okay? These people are purists. One drop of something else, you are ostracized. They think that they are pure white. They are the master race. Any tainting of the master race, whether it's Hispanic, whether it's black, whether it's whatever else, they don't want. It's like the Hitler mentality. That's how they look at it. What you're saying is basically right. There's going to be a lot more mixing by 2042. But those who are pure are going to want to keep pure and that's what they're teaching their kids and so forth. And that's why they're trying to stop this shift with all these lone wolves going around shooting these people. And what they're looking for is what they, what white supremacists call RAHOWA, Those are the first two letters of three words racial holy war. They also call it the boogaloo. But it means the race war. And they're trying to start this because they're trying to stop this shift. That's their mentality. And I'll tell you, you remember 1999, everybody was freaking out about the year 2000, Y2K? My VCR is gonna stop working! The banks are gonna lose my money. People believed this, they caused a panic. 2000 rolled around, and January 1st, 2000 was just another day in just another year. Nothing stopped working, the world continued. The earth still spun on its axis, right? 2042 is the white supremacist Y2K. They send out this message. That's their perception. And that's what you have to deal with.

I'm not anti-racist, racist being a noun. I'm anti-racism. I'm not against the person. I'm against the person's message, their ideology. That's why I continue to work with these people. I know they can do better. I know if they can see something that they never saw before and give them reason to rethink, chances are they'll go in the right direction. There will be people who are hateful, violent, and racist, and they will go to their grave being hateful, violent, and racist. I know many of those people. Some of them, though, have surprised me and changed and come back and apologized to me. Even some of those that I got into fights with. But I say don't be anti-racist. Be pro-human. Be anti-racism. My favorite quote of all time is by Mark Twain, who said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness. And many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

And that is so true. I realized that a lot of these people with this mentality will not do the travel that you've done, that I've done. But perhaps I can bring some of it into their lives and give them reason to think. For me to go to those countries, I had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, et cetera. Today, we don't necessarily have to do that. We have plenty of people from all over the world right here in this country today. Or we can get on the internet and talk to people anywhere on the face of this earth. We need to explore these because there is a cure for racism. It's called exposure and education. And that's where we need to focus our time and our resources. As I said before, ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds hatred. Hatred breeds destruction. I say, We spend too much time in this country talking about the other person, talking at the other person, talking past the other person. Why don't we spend a few minutes talking with the other person? We spend too much time in this country addressing the destruction. I say, you know what? Forget about the destruction. What's been destroyed is not coming back. The destruction is only a symptom of the nucleus. The nucleus is ignorance. If you cure ignorance, then there's nothing to fear. With nothing to fear, there's nothing to hate. With nothing to hate, there's nothing to get angry about and destroy. That's where we need to invest our time, our efforts and our energy. And that's what I continue to do.

Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.

If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.


Podcast production by Brendan Ruberry and Jack Shields.

Connect with us! Spotify | Apple | Google

X: @Yascha_Mounk & @JoinPersuasion

YouTube: Yascha Mounk, Persuasion

LinkedIn: Persuasion Community

1 Comment
The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.