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David Campt has a plan to better arm white people in the battle against racism

The veteran mediator talks to ThinkProgress about his strategies -- and the unexpected lessons he learned from Trump's election.

David Campt leads a 'White Ally' workshop at New York Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Sam Fulwood III/ThinkProgress
David Campt leads a 'White Ally' workshop at New York Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Sam Fulwood III/ThinkProgress

For the bulk of his 25-plus-year career as an expert trained to help groups navigate conflicts and promote cultural competence, David Campt has been fixated on solving a pair of challenges: How can the typically private and prickly conversations that Americans have about race become more public and less confrontational? And, on those occasions when honest and candid discussions about race do emerge,what’s the best way to scale them up into constructive national conversations?

As it turned out, during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, just such a golden, albeit totally unexpected, opportunity beckoned. And as Campt told ThinkProgress in an extensive series of interviews, it was just the moment he’d been waiting for, having had extensive experience conducting focus groups for a host of private and non-profit organizations — including the establishment of a series of national dialogues as a part of President Bill Clinton’s initiative on race.

Confident that Donald Trump’s campaign strategy of appealing to angry white voters was a sure-fire loser, Campt figured it was an apt occasion to examine what made those voters tick. At Americans Listen, Campt developed a program to interview Trump supporters with the goal of actually listening to their concerns and learning how to effectively defuse their racial hostility.

“I saw that there’s a candidate who running and represents all these angry white people,” Campt said, adding he had no doubt Trump would lose. “But [I figured] it’s important from the standpoint of maintaining coherence of society that we understand what [his supporters] are angry about and give some expression to that.”

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His strategy was to send trained white facilitators, who didn’t support Trump, out across the nation to interview white people who were among Trump’s strongest supporters. The Americans Listens project conducted more than 50 hour-long dialogues in the months before the 2016 election. Based on those conversations and his prior work, Campt wrote and self-published “The White Ally Toolkit Workbook”, which he uses and promotes in workshops as a practical, step-by-step guide to equip white Americans, as he puts it, “to dismantle racism one conversation at a time.” 

In a wide-ranging interview, Campt’s explains that what he learned from those conversations were as much of a shock to him as the outcome of the election. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Did you conduct these interviews on your own?

 No. White people were doing them. The point was to have white people do it because I wanted to take racial anxiety out of the transactions. So they could have a different kind of conversation about race – it wasn’t just about race – but one of the questions was about race. But I figured, if a person of color was talking to an angry white person they were going to get a different result than if a white person was talking to another white person.

So the election happens. (Laughs) It was a different result from what everybody expected. Then, after I came out of my stupor, I said, “Where does this go?”

You were anticipating Trump losing and they were still going to be angry?

They were going to be angrier…. So I organized more white people to do more interviews.  On the day of the Inauguration, I had people come in and do interviews and the day of the [Women’s March] I had them do the same thing. We conducted about 60 15-minute interviews on the day of the inauguration and the next day of the march.

What did you learn from the interviews, the first round of 50 interviews?

I learned that it is hard for liberals to listen to conservatives. It is hard to get people to not be judgmental. They have to employ tricks, like people have to learn that “I need to look them in the eye.”

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That’s been instructive in this project because finding your own strategies to become a good listener is critical if you’re trying to talk across that divide. Progressive people can go to a very judgmental place when they hear conservative perspectives. Turns out l learned more about the listening thing.

In terms of the biggest finding on the substantive side was how much people on the right were not liking the division. Even though the division has gotten worse since Trump has gotten elected, in the last couple years, people on the right perceive that the divisions in the country ideologically are a problem. They would like it better if there were less of that.

Did that come as a surprise to you?

It was a surprise that it came up in so many interviews. I think what it is that people are so accustomed to not having a cross-ideological encounter that when [they are given the opportunity] they go, “Whew, this is good.”  What was surprising was how often people said, “This is a different kind of conversation and I like this.”

So Trump gets elected and your focus had to change?

The truth is after he got elected and I was processing the first round of interviews, I realized, “Okay, I need to focus on this issue of how white people talk to each other.”

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What hit me from this process is the limitation to any type of dialogue model based on trained facilitators and group processes because there’s only so many facilitators who are good and only so many people who are going to come to the group meeting and do that. So we need to expand our notions of racial dialogue. What needs to happen is that somebody must push out dialogue skills through the population of regular folks, not just having people come to meetings.

So there’s going to be a level of candor or, perhaps even, a willingness to talk about tough things that a white person can bring out in other white people that a person of color can not do. So what’s needed is for those white people to know how to have effective conversation, need to know what we know from persuasion science, even neurobiology – there’s science about how you persuade people, conflict resolution, that field has been around for a while – they need to benefit from the findings about how you have a productive encounter.

This is an article of faith that you have, that white people will have this conversation, if you’re not in the room?

Well, yes and no. I’ve never been around white people when there wasn’t a black person there. (Laughs) What that means is that if the racial anxiety exists, a black person will bring it up for them.

If you identify as [a white] ally, you need to be both a vulture and a beaver. A vulture is very opportunistic, they look for an opportunity for food and they are equipped to take advantage of it, right? Enough white people say enough racially problematic statements when they’re just around other white people that they will hear it. So they need to be prepared for that moment. That’s being a vulture, responding to the statements that come up, but do so in a good way.

But the beaver thing is separate issue. A whole lot of these [liberal white] people want to think of themselves as “I’m woke and I’m doing my job.” But we can see from the election that it was a massive ally fail.

It was a massive ally fail with global consequences because a whole bunch of folks who consider themselves “woke” and say they check their privilege and all that, did not talk to Uncle Bubba. Not only didn’t they talk to Uncle Bubba with the intention of talking him out of voting for Trump, but [they] didn’t have an honest conversation about whether Trump was racially problematic enough to disqualify him.

Why did this happen in your opinion?

When people say stuff that is problematic racially, if you are strongly identified as anti-racist, you typically have either a freeze response or flight and don’t engage in that, or you want to fight with the person. It turns out that neither of those are effective.

One of the things that tends to happen, I think, is that woke people demonstrate their wokeness by reading racist people the riot act. But they know that reading people the riot act causes disruptions in their family. But they don’t know what else to do other than not say anything.

What role do black people play in this?

If this project has a shot of doing this, one of the things needed is for black people nudging and equipping their white friends to do this work. So the work with black people is to raise among us the degree to which we’re putting our white friends in a position to have these conversations?

To have these conversations is risky. For black folks, we don’t want to have that conversation [with white friends] about, “What are you doing when I’m not around?” We don’t have that talk because what we find out will piss us off, so we keep talking about the game or our kids or whatever, and not talk about what you’re doing or saying with Uncle Bubba.

There’s another aspect of that, too. A whole bunch of middle-class people – and it’s mostly middle-class black people who have white friends – don’t talk about racism [affecting them]. Why? Because of the same risk and disappointment.

I don’t want to face the possibility that my white friend will disappoint me. We can have a good conversation about whatever it is, our marriages, our kids, our financial futures, something that’s really important. But I’m not really sure what they’re going to say to me if I talk about racism. So I’m not going to talk about it and it becomes a certain kind of hole in our relationships. I’m not being my full self.

By and large, given how segregated we live across the racial lines, are black folks that close to white people?

Every middle-class black person has a couple of [white] people whom they influence. You know, how white people say “I have a good friend who is black?” [Laughs] Within that realm of influence, what is the level of honesty and candor?

Isn’t it ironic that a black man is the person trying to get white people to talk to white people?

For our white allies, when they’re working on race, there is a value for them in knowing there’s leadership from non-white people in this project. For some allies, especially people on the far-far-left, they will have been trained and are justified in being highly skeptical or suspicious of the way their white privilege will infect any kind of effort. So it’s valuable for them to see this work is coming from a black person.

In fact, part of the reason I dress as I do is because I’m trying to let people know I’m an unapologetic black person. I wear dashikis and two-piece suits are clearly African because I want to let people know that this project is from a black perspective and I’m unapologetically black.

I’m not trying to meld in and this is not about trying to be nice to white people for the sake of it. This about trying to have white people become more effective in fighting racism and I’m doing that clearly as a black person who’s not trying to be white.