Enrichment Assimilation, part 6

PERSONAL ANTI-RACISM

It is an old observation that much racism or race-based hatred is rooted in ignorance. Ignorance, unfortunately, evokes fear and insecurity in a great many people. They lash out in hatred against what they do not understand. So much racial strife is a result of strangers interacting. My favorite friendship quote (attributed to George Washington) is, “True friendship is a plant of slow growth.” The opposite is true of racism, for racists react instantly to physical appearances, know nothing about their targets, and do not want to know anything about them.

This is one reason why the approach of brave black man Daryl Davis is so remarkable. If he has a motto, it is, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”¹ This echoes Stanley Crouch’s upbringing, during which elders told him, “Boy, the lowest thing you can be is a man who spends all his time hating somebody he doesn’t even know.”²

So far, Davis has helped persuade many dozens of former Klansmen to renounce their racism. They even give Davis their Ku Klux Klan costumes as a symbol of their changed ways. What Davis does and has done stands as a testament of one person’s living moral cosmopolitanism example. I doubt if his personal courage in conversing with Klan members (and angry fellow blacks) can be improved upon as a way to live daily life against racism. Granted, others work at the policy and legal levels and deal with race problems on a much larger scale, though only professionals like attorney Michelle Alexander and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center are able to do that. But Davis is the living embodiment of someone out there proving that, sometimes, getting acquainted with people is the best antidote to hatred.

I once interviewed a very nice gentleman by the name of Jim Spain in a small town in southeastern Missouri called Poplar Bluff. Spain had been a Democrat in the Missouri House of Representatives, right after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which he favored. Obviously those were landmark pieces of legislation during the Civil Rights Era, with profound consequences for the nation. National legislation is one thing, local society another. During the 1960s, Poplar Bluff had a population of about 16,000, with percentages of white and black people very similar to that of the national average. Here is what Spain said in 1996 about local race relations:

Nothing changes instantly in southeast Missouri. It changed gradually. I’d say it [the breaking of social segregation between blacks and whites] had more to do with — and I know this is shallow and probably inaccurate, but — athletics. Yes. It’s amazing how, black boys started playing with white boys, parents would go out to watch these ball games and, man, they [the white parents] wanted that black kid to score that basket or make that tackle. And they rooted for them. It was just a gradual sort of thing, and we’re not there yet by a hell of a long way.³

Naturally I do not think his observation was shallow or inaccurate at all. Even in a small town like Poplar Bluff, there were plenty of pre-integration era black and white people who had never become acquainted with one another. Ignorance and sequestration does not always breed racism, and acquaintanceship does not always cure it. But Spain’s observation and Daryl Davis’s practical philosophy address something important regarding people who think they hate or think they hate strangers because of their skin color.

Davis does not try to “convert” racist whites; instead, he appreciates how his own benevolence sometimes fosters an ability for former Klansmen to enlighten themselves. “I try to elicit the good in everybody,” Davis says. “At the end of the day, we all are human beings. And I prove that I am their friend. They don’t have anything to fear from me. And they realize that, later on. Which is why, at the end, when they finally come to that conclusion — even leaders, as well as rank-and-file members all the way to the top, grand dragons (which are state leaders) imperial wizards (which are national leaders) — [they] end up giving me their robes and hoods.”⁴

Daryl Davis displaying one of the Klan robes given to him by a former member (2017 U.S. Jerusalem Embassy photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Granted, Davis’s cosmopolitan upbringing as a diplomat’s son gave him an unusual early perspective on life, but this disposition shows up in all the positive ways. Davis went to school with classmates from all over the world. Davis remembered that, in general, “we all got along as little kids. That was the future. So, I know it can work.”⁵

The academics who resist stories of interracial friendship don’t know what they’re missing.⁶ Brothers Roy and Alex Cooper (African American) described white families who lived in the areas of Gobler and Wardell, Missouri, during the 1950s and 1960s. One family owned a tractor trailer. “They would go to Mississippi and Alabama, and there would be families down there that were being abused. And they would slip them out and put them on that truck and bring them out at night to Gobler.” The white truck owner was rescuing black people from agricultural peonage. Roy’s brother Alex compared the operation to a modern day Underground Railroad, and both brothers agreed that as late as the 1990s, decades after rescuing these victims, everyone involved remained wary of being tracked down by the abusive whites down south. Alex said, “You have some unique relationships in Wardell between certain black and white families, and that was directly related to it.” Paraphrasing the white smuggler, he laughingly said of the fait accompli, “They have a word out here that some people from Missouri is coming down taking the black help.”⁷

If I had lingered in Missouri a few years more, the Cooper brothers would have introduced me to the surviving members of this twentieth century Underground Railroad and their descendants. They knew they would have to broach the matter carefully, gradually, and diplomatically with the white and black people involved, for the memory of escaped peonage lingered palpably, and people were still wary of retribution, all those decades later.

We cannot ignore the social construct of race because of racism. We should respect the civil rights laws that have revolutionized the legal world regarding race, even though laws cannot rectify racist attitudes, ignorance, fear, and other things often best addressed through formal education. But on an interpersonal level throughout our daily activities — in our neighborhoods, if we travel, where we work, where we shop — if we ignore interracial goodwill as a possible antidote to lingering racism, where are we?

See my List, “Enrichment Assimilation” for other installments in this series of excerpts from my unpublished book, Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream, Copyright © 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

ENDNOTES

[1] Davis describes his experiences with the Klan in Daryl Davis, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan (Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press, 1998). For an excellent documentary, see Matthew Ornstein, dir., Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (PBS, Independent Lens, 2017). Also see Dwane Brown, “How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes,” NPR’s All Things Considered (Aug. 20, 2017).

[2] Stanley Crouch, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990–1994 (NY: Pantheon Books, 1995), 25.

[3] James E. Spain interview, Poplar Bluff, Missouri, June 12, 1996. Transcript and audio tapes located in the “Politics in Missouri Oral History Project,” Collection #3929, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.

[4] Hari Sreenivasan, “Daryl Davis on Befriending Members of the KKK,” Amanpour and Company (Dec. 11, 2019).

[5] Ibid.

[6] An introductory indication may be found in James Jeffrey, “The White Southerners Who Fought US Segregation,” BBC News (March 12, 2019). As mentioned elsewhere, due to widespread resistance in academia, it took me twelve years to find a publisher for my interracial friendship study, “Melting Pot Benevolence and Liberty Patriotism: The Importance of the Moral Cosmopolitan Precedent in Asian American History,” British Journal of American Legal Studies 3:1 (Spring 2014): 197–257.

[7] Roy and Alex Cooper Interview, Hayti, Missouri, August 4, 1998. Transcript and audio tapes located in the “Politics in Missouri Oral History Project,” Collection #3929, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.

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Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.