BOOKS
09/24/2018 01:36 pm ET

Meet The White Nationalist Who Walked Away From It All

Derek Black, the son of Don Black, who founded the white nationalist website Stormfront, was the heir apparent for his family’s cause — until something happened to change his mind.
Derek Black renounced his family’s white nationalist ideology several years ago.
Courtesy of Derek Black
Derek Black renounced his family’s white nationalist ideology several years ago.

A few years ago Derek Black was the heir apparent to America’s white nationalist movement. He was the son of Don Black, the founder of the hate site Stormfront and the godson of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK. The kingdom was Derek Black’s for the taking.  

Until one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he walked away from it all.

In the new book “Rising Out of Hatred” by Washington Post investigative reporter Eli Saslow, the story of how Black came to leave it all behind is told in a fast and fascinating account.

Saslow dives deep into Black’s transformation, which took place at a small liberal arts college in Florida. When members of the student body discovered a white nationalist living in their midst, many of them publicly shamed him. But a handful of students did the opposite, practicing a form of extreme acceptance. Instead of trying to change his mind, they try to understand him.

“Rising Out of Hatred” is an extraordinary tale of hope, especially in a time when white nationalism is seeing a continued rise in America.

HuffPost talked to Saslow about the book. This interview has been condensed and edited.

How did you first hear about Derek Black?

I was reporting about Dylann Roof, who had killed many people at a church in Charleston [in South Carolina], and it came out that he had spent time on the white nationalist website Stormfront.  

The message boards were awful. They celebrated horrific acts of violence. But the biggest and most active thread was about Derek Black. At that point, a year before, he had disavowed his family and disappeared. The message board was specifically about how he had hurt the [white nationalist] movement.

I decided I wanted to talk to him. When I first found him, he was unequivocal that he did not want to be written about. He naively thought he could leave it all behind. For the next few years, we stayed in touch, and it took more than any other piece of writing I had ever done to eventually build trust with him.

Meanwhile, white nationalism was seeing a rise in the political space. There were phrases being used — exact phrases he had helped popularize — becoming mainstream. Derek felt increasingly culpable. He was haunted by it. He understood the power of it and how it had gained a stronghold. That’s when he decided he needed to start talking about it more openly.  

Compared with a newspaper article, a book is a luxury in the word-count department. How did you decide where to begin the reporting?

It was hard to do. I needed not only tons of time interviewing, but I also wanted for the reader to feel like Derek’s transformation was taking place in real time. Luckily for me, millennials document their lives relentlessly. And Derek’s story was online in message boards, emails and texts. I could plot out a timeline, and I could see what looked like an obvious arc of the story. 

How about where to begin the book?

It felt important to start at the height of white national influence, when Derek was elected to office and was a keynote speaker at a conference. It was at that moment when everyone thought he was beginning to take the mantle, including his godfather, David Duke, and father, Don Black.

I wanted to start where Derek was starting from when he arrived at college. And I didn’t want to spend the first quarter of the book embedded in white nationalism. It is just too bleak. It is a lot to ask readers to stay embedded in an insular racist world. Pretty quickly I wanted him to be encountering different perspectives on campus.  

Talk about those perspectives and how they impacted Derek.

Derek was on a campus that was so social justice minded and also where students were smart enough to be able to explain concepts like systematic oppression and privilege and things he had not heard about and had only heard of dismissed as empty rhetoric from the left. But coming from people he respected, those ideas suddenly had real merit to him. He took time to engage and really think about it.

What was so great was, instead of just his transformation story, the book became the stories of all these other people on campus and people so different from his own perspective.

Talk about the sourcing of the story.

The online student forum on campus was a guide. It was really active with constant exchanges. It set up who were the leading players. Building trust with them was challenging, especially with Alison, who became Derek’s partner.

I met her when I was doing the original story, and she was helpful but not ready to go public. She feels conflicted — still — over some of the things she did in college, in terms of beginning a relationship with Derek, even if to change his thinking. But she feels it worked out well. They’re still together, and I think Alison sometimes thinks that some of her actions in college were naive.  

Talk about something that surprised you over the course of the reporting and research.

Derek’s story is such a gigantic tent in terms of different kinds of people. I had to spend time with white nationalists like David Duke and Richard Spencer one day, and the next day I spent time with people who had just arrived in this country, or I’d be spending time with people on a culturally liberal campus who dedicated their lives to uplifting people of color. 

Literally on some days, I was listening to someone rant about how concentration camps didn’t exist, and then the next day I’d be hanging out with the Jewish student Moshe who impacted Derek’s thinking, whose relatives were wiped out in a concentration camp. It was remarkably jarring. But it gave me a sense of the two worlds Derek was navigating when he was trying to have a foot in both worlds.   

Could you speak to how the book is in some ways a prequel to the current white nationalist movement that has grown under Donald Trump’s administration?

White nationalism in America is a beast within the country, and it is not going anywhere. More and more white people feel disenfranchised and feel like they are victims of racism. They believe the country inherently belongs to them and that it is being turned into something they don’t recognize.

That is scary.

Many people who believe those things might not recognize those are racist ideas and they are leading us to some dangerous places.

Derek is not, I would say, hopeful. No matter how far he has come, he thinks [white nationalism] is the country’s foundational flaw and will be part of our political undoing. We need to tackle that history instead of trying to tell ourselves that everyone has a fair shot when they don’t.

Derek is truly a remarkable person. But could his transformation be replicated?  

He is so unique. He is uniquely smart. And that made him equipped to discover the flaws in the white nationalism ideology. But uniquely at the heart of the ideology and what probably made it hard to change his mind was how he had to walk away from his family and everything else that was foundational in his life.

But what is replicable are the actions of the students around him on campus. There was Birmingham, who shut down the campus to protest Derek; Matthew, who built a friendship with him to see where it could go; and then Allison, who invested in him and then dismantled him.

I admire all three. They engaged. They saw a problem and invested heavily in dealing with it. Most of us avoid discussions with people who disagree with our point of view. But the people who impacted Derek did the exact opposite. They went all in trying to make a difference.

I hope for myself that I can do more of that too. I now know about the different ways to do that. Matt stuck with me because he had the patience to do something I would never do. He is an Orthodox Jew who said to himself, “I am going to become friends with the future of the white nationalist movement.” He decided to build a friendship instead of a case against his ideology.

Maybe by being a friend, Derek could see that Jews are not there to undermine the future of the white race. Alison did nothing for two years other than talk to him about his ideology. I hope there are lessons in the ways they went about engaging with Derek that could be useful.

Derek’s story is also about family estrangement. When he stepped away from the white nationalist ideology, he also stepped away from a close relationship with his parents. Could you speak about that?

Don told me many times that he experienced Derek’s transformation as a death. He is still broken by it.

One reason why Don took part so fully in the book is it forced him to have a conversation with Derek he wasn’t otherwise having. Nowadays they only text each other occasionally. There is so much distance. Ideology was at the root of their relationship, the one big thing they shared.  

Don is such a complicated person and character in the book. He still believes horrible things. He has caused a huge amount of damage. He asks for no breaks. But at the same time, he really loves his kid, and it’s hard to hold both things in the same hand.

There are parts of the book where readers find themselves in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with the emotional wounds of a leading white nationalist. But it is necessary to understand who Derek is and what he did and knifing the back of who he loved the most.

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