Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer probably didn’t expect his speech at the University of Florida to provoke a moment like this. In the midst of the loud protests and heated rhetoric, the unthinkable happened: a black man hugged a Nazi.
It was one of those shocking moments that causes one to question the necessity of the aggressive approach towards bigotry that we see today. Watching the video, you can see that the obstacles that divide us are not unbreakable.
Is there a better way to fight racism? Let’s take a look at what happened and find out.
Here’s What Happened
Last Thursday, Richard Spencer gave a speech at the University of Florida. It was his first public appearance since he led his group in a march at the rally that resulted in a white supremacist killing activist Heather Heyer.
Spencer’s speech attracted a few fans and a significant number of protesters. It was cut short, however, when he was drowned out by the shouting. But it was what happened after the event that made people take notice.
The protests continued outside after the speech was concluded. The Washington Post reported that a young man named Randy Furniss began walking through the crowd of protesters, who were shouting at him. One individual punched him in the face. As Furniss continued walking, a black man named Aaron Courtney approached him and wrapped him in an embrace.
“Why don’t you like me, dog?” he asked.
The two men had a brief back and forth — with Courtney repeatedly asking why Furniss hated him. Finally, Furniss said, “I don’t know.” At this point, Furniss returned Courtney’s embrace.
Afterward, Courtney told the Daily News why he decided to take this approach, “I could have hit him, I could have hurt him…but something in me said, ‘You know what? He just needs love.’”
Dialogue Is the Most Powerful Weapon Against Bigotry
This story is compelling in its message. It shows us that there are ways to bridge the racial gaps that don’t involve shouting and sharp rhetoric. Other examples also demonstrate the power of dialogue.
When Hawk Newsome, leader of a New York chapter of Black Lives Matter arrived at a pro-Trump rally, he got something unexpected: an invitation to address the audience. The result was surprising — he spoke to a crowd that seemingly disagreed with his message. At some points as Newsom spoke, there was jeering, and at others, raucous applause. Afterward, he shook hands with many of the Trump supporters in attendance at the rally and even posed for a picture holding the son of one of the attendees.
Musician Daryl Davis, the subject of a documentary entitled “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America,” made it his mission to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan. It started as the result of a chance encounter with a Klan member after a gig Davis had played. In the course of his conversation, Davis discovered that the man he was speaking with was a member of the white supremacist organization.
This interaction inspired him to tour the United States to meet with Klan members and ask a simple question: “how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Over the past few decades, Davis has convinced 200 former Klansmen to renounce their hateful ideology.
Hate Is Still Too Popular
Unfortunately, many reject this type of approach. They will launch the same level of vitriol at people who are willing to dialogue with racists as they would the actual racists. Both Hawk Newsome and Daryl Davis have experienced this type of criticism.
Vice recently published a piece detailing the aftermath of Hawk Newsome’s interaction with Trump supporters. While many Americans applauded the effort to create dialogue on both sides, members of Black Lives Matter excoriated Newsome for his actions.
Semah El, a member of Black Souljahz, said of Newsome, “He wants to be on CNN and see his face on the media,” he said. “It’s good to be ambitious if your ambition is to free the people, but how are you moving as a pan-Africanist at a Trump rally shaking hands, picking up white babies?”
Another activist said, “If we’re at war, he just committed treason.” She added, “This is Black Lives Matter. [Trump supporters] declared war on us… and you’re going to go and shake hands, normalize white supremacy?”
Newsome’s group is not an official chapter of the Black Lives Matter organization, which has distanced itself from them. Their rejection of Newsom and his friends is a shame. His supposed allies deserted him because he managed to find common ground with people with whom Black Lives Matter disagrees. However, Newsome was not the only target of BLM’s rage.
In his documentary, Davis is shown sitting with two members of Black Lives Matter who scold him for conversing with racist whites. The conversation quickly got heated. “Just like the young man said to you, you could have done a whole lot more work in the black community from the ‘90s to now to move our people forward rather than coming in here trying to uplift somebody because you got a hood off of their head,” one of the men said. “I don’t give a shit about you, or your KKK hoods!
The reality is that reacting with hate and vitriol is far easier than breaking bread with someone who disagrees with you. It takes more strength and effort to speak civilly with those you consider your enemies. And yet, this method seems to be far more effective than relying on hateful rhetoric.
There Is a Better Way
The two Black Lives Matter members didn’t get the point. If Davis was able to get prominent leaders in the most hateful white supremacist group in the country to change just by having conversations, how much more could the rest of black America accomplish by doing the same with non-racist whites? If Black Lives Matter genuinely cares about police brutality, why not sit down with law enforcement officials to find a solution?
The United States needs a breakthrough — not just in race relations, but also when it comes to political differences in general.
Are there times when we need to be more confrontational? Sure. However, in most cases, dialogue is a far more powerful way to find solutions.
Americans will always disagree on significant issues. We will have sharp debates over the problems we face. However, if we refuse to speak to one another, we will not move forward as a nation. We must be willing to engage in conversation — even when it makes us angry. As Daryl Davis said, “When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.”