When Derek Black was a teenager, it was basically set in stone that he'd become the leader of the American white nationalist movement. His father, Don, ran the hate-site Stormfront out of their family home in Florida, and seemed to spend all his free time ferrying his rhetorically-gifted son around the South to speak at far-right conferences. His godfather, meanwhile, was former KKK Grand Wizard and notorious Louisiana politician David Duke. By the time Derek was 19, he had already won an election to the Republican Party’s executive committee in Palm Beach County on a platform of banning non-European immigration, and he was hosting his own radio show five days per week.
He was smart, flashy, and unflappable—and making Derek the most famous racist in the world was the project of Don's life.
That all started to fall apart after Derek spent a few years at the notoriously liberal—but also good and cheap—New College of Florida in Sarasota. Once he was outed and ostracized on a school-wide list-serve, a group of students made it their mission to invite him to a weekly Shabbat dinner. One psychology student named Allison kept engaging with his ideas, and even traveled with him and his parents to a Stormfront conference in Tennessee to get a better idea of how to reach him. Although people thought they were crazy for trying, their plan eventually worked, as a new book by Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow shows. Just as Derek's extremist ideology was becoming mainstreamed in America, he renounced it.
I chatted with Saslow—whose book is called Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist—about how Derek slowly became convinced to leave white nationalism and what he might be doing now if things had gone differently. Here's our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that mainstream, modern politicians only started aping white-nationalist talking points starting around the time of the 2016 election, but that's not really the case. Can you elaborate on how Derek's sanitized version of white supremacy entered the political arena in 2012, or earlier?
Eli Saslow: It's really something that began even earlier than that, in the early 2000s. Like, moving toward that election in 2012, Derek and really Stormfront as a whole and large parts of the white nationalist movement worked really hard to sort-of sanitize the language of their ideology and scrub from it the language of violence it had embraced. So for Derek in particular it was: Let's reverse things and make it so that we're talking about white people as victims. So it was phrases like "white genocide," speaking to white Americans about how what was inherently their country was being taken away and turned into something else, something they don't recognize. So enforcing that sort of ownership, which was really effective. Unfortunately, in part because it's built upon a very real and dark truth in American history—which is that white supremacy has always been a big part of what this country is—white nationalists were able to start capitalizing on that and mainstreaming that language.
After his transformation, Derek said the rise of white nationalist ideology in America stemmed from the fact that white people in America, deep down, think they should come first—always. Do you think that's a fair or complete summary of the phenomenon on his part?
I know for Derek, his belief in that phenomenon did not change. He went from an emerging white nationalist leader to believing that the fact that white people believe this is a country set up for white people is the dangerous foundational flaw at the heart of it.
The idea of building a wall or prioritizing European-first immigration is not new. In fact, David Duke and the Klan first turned attention hardcore to the border in the 70s, when Duke decided to go on a tour of the border with Derek's father, Don Black, to promote the idea of building the wall. And for two weeks he drove around the desert with the media trailing behind him. The Klan was trying to move away from focusing on race in the South and focus on anti-immigration sentiment on the Southern border. So different versions of these very racially problematic ideas were present in 2012. Mitt Romney's idea of self-deportation was to make life so untenable and miserable for people that they would actually just choose to leave. And that's a really dark thing. People were also, in 2012, talking about building the wall, electrifying the fence. Unfortunately, America's inherent fear of the other is not new. But it's been capitalized and brought into the mainstream in such a way that makes it feel revelatory.
It seems Allison's ability to transform Derek's beliefs stemmed from the fact that she sought out studies refuting his ideas on racial difference. Do people have a responsibility to read this primary source material for themselves?
It's a super effective way to combat the ideology, because all the facts are against the ideology. It's a misunderstanding of science and history that is totally flawed. So in this story, if there's something hopeful about it for me, it's that Derek is really smart and he was able to deduce the facts. And it's very reassuring to know that the facts are not on the side of racism. All of these myths of black-on-white crime and IQ differentials, or even the idea of white European warriors as this medieval force, are all wrong. When Derek started reading study after study, he was smart enough to see the flaws in that logic. Trying to understand the very flawed concept of race and whiteness itself is hugely empowering to help other people think about this stuff in different ways.
As pointed out throughout the book, Derek is an autodidact with a remarkable amount of curiosity about the world, though. Why did he apparently never take 15 minutes to Google facts about this ideology, which was the great animating force of his life?
That's a great question and something I tried to understand for a very long time. One of the things I kept asking Derek about was that white nationalism is so talked about. Part of the political [situation] now that [is] I think we've lost sight of what avowed white nationalists actually see as the endpoint for their ideology. As his father, Don, says in the book, "We're gonna put people on trains and do whatever we have to do to turn this into a whites-only country." If you're smart, in addition to all the unbelievably awful consequences of that and the humanitarian crisis, the idea is crazy. Who's white? Who's not white? It's something that not even white nationalists have answers for.
So it troubles me that Derek was so smart but spent so much time believing this was the outcome that was plausible. But in Derek's case, he was raised in this very insular world in which every influential person in his life believed this to be true. And all of Derek's relationships were—if they weren't based on ideology, then it was at the center. And so as somebody who was really smart and wanted to achieve things, the way he could do that as a kid was through white nationalism. By trying to work really hard to make the ideology make sense to him, which he did through going to these scary American Renaissance conferences with scientists who work really hard to try and make this ideology make sense.
He very rarely bumped up against people who thought differently than he did. He was homeschooled, and he spent most of his time traveling around the South with his dad. It wasn't really until college that he was spending huge amounts of time with people who were different from him, and people his ideology had dehumanized. If that had happened earlier, my guess is that his transformation would have happened earlier.
Do you think Derek would have found his way out eventually had Allison not made such an effort? Would defining himself apart from his parents have been a natural part of growing up, or was that intervention completely necessary?
The real answer is I'm not sure. The further he went into white nationalism, the more it would have become embedded in his identity, because he would have gotten even more feedback from the people in these circles who meant a lot to him. He got a lot out of white nationalism. It made him known. It made people like him. It made his parents proud. It was a huge counterweight. But another thing that makes his a uniquely college story is that he was in a stage that psychologists call fluid identity. He was living away from home. It was a very natural time for him to form intense relationships and reconsider who he was.
The one other thing I would say is that even in that environment, it didn't seem inevitable that he was going to change his views. He was still going to Stormfront conferences. It took a lot of different approaches. The civil resistance on campus was hugely effective. The fact that when he was outed as a white nationalist, that people were able to cast him out, made Derek reconcile with how awful some of his ideas were. It also made him lonely. So that when [a Jewish student named] Matt would ask him to come to dinner, he was much more likely to say "yes."
Derek's first reaction when he got outed was: Fuck these people. I'm going to throw the biggest white nationalist conference they've ever seen and start bringing white nationalist speakers in and go further in to prove to everyone I'm right. So if people hadn't been patient enough to keep engaging, he probably would not have figured it out for himself.
What about someone like Don? Is he beyond redemption? Or do you think Derek could do for Don what Allison did for him?
I think a part of Derek thought it was possible. Don always thought two things: That white nationalism was right, and that Derek was the smartest person in the world. So when Derek said it was fucked-up and wrong, suddenly his whole pattern of thinking didn't work. Either white nationalism had to be wrong, or Derek wasn't as smart as he'd thought. I think Derek really hoped those seeds might grow, but as someone who's almost 70 and has devoted his entire life to spreading hate—
It would invalidate his life.
So I think that's a very unlikely thing. But Don's lost the energy for it. He's just so broken. He's become much more fatalistic, but he has less energy for the fight than he did before.
Well, why did he talk to you?
My guess is that it facilitated a conversation with Derek that he was not having. And I think Don is sort of in this grieving process and still feels like he's lost the most important relationship in his life. And talking to me about Derek was like having that back for brief periods of time.
What do you think Derek would be doing right now, had he not changed his worldview?
I've asked him this. He thinks he would be a smarter, less odious Richard Spencer. I think that for Don, who's overjoyed about some of the ways that the country is moving, he just feels like this is such a huge missed opportunity for Derek to be a more mainstream political figure on the far-racist right. My guess is he would be organizing a campaign or would have built out his radio show into something more multimedia or like Breitbart or something like that. Right now, Derek's disavowal is basically killing Stormfront.
At the end of the book, Derek says he wants to go public to warn people about an upcoming "critical point?" What do you think that is, if it wasn't the election of Trump?
I think Derek believes that, unfortunately, the 2016 election was an arbiter for more to come given the way the country is heading demographically and the fact that so many white people have the feelings they do about race and about prejudice against them. Basically, that the rise of explicitly white racial politics is only just beginning.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.