The Reeducation of a Racist
By Tucker CoombeNovember 6, 2018
Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow
Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist tells the story of a young man raised in the heart of white nationalism — and expected to lead it into the next generation — who disavows the movement and goes on to speak out against its evils.
On one hand, the book, which grew out of a 2016 feature Saslow wrote for the Washington Post, is the story of one person’s deeply personal transformation. But Derek’s awakening fits into a larger tale — the recent growth and evolution of white nationalism. The two narratives travel alongside each other, twisting and intertwining in dramatic and even surprising ways.
The story begins in 2008 as the movement, under the leadership of famed white supremacist David Duke, is trying to change its image, jettisoning its association with Klansmen and Nazis and associating itself with the far-right side of the mainstream. Derek is involved in the effort. Later, as white nationalism begins to reap the benefits of this strategy — “Donald Trump rose toward the presidency thanks in part to white identity politics,” Saslow points out — Derek will make his dramatic departure.
The narrative opens with a chilling scene from a white nationalism conference, held in a secret location in Memphis four days after the election of Barack Obama. “The Klansman and neo-Nazis arrived for their meeting in the fall of 2008 dressed in suits with aliases written on their name tags and began sneaking into the hotel just after dawn,” writes Saslow. Many of the country’s preeminent white supremacists were in attendance. Derek — a 19-year-old community college student “with shoulder-length red hair and a large black cowboy hat that he wore in an effort to make himself more memorable” — was the keynote speaker.
He had been born into what might be called one of the first families of white nationalism. His father, Don Black, was a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and founder of Stormfront, the internet’s first and largest hate site. Duke was his godfather and mentor, and the first husband of his mother, Chloe.
He grew up reading the 1914 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (which depicts the Klan as a “fraternal organization”), playing his guitar, carrying out medieval reenactments, immersing himself in the Stormfront website, and attending white nationalism conferences with his father. When he was just 11 years old, he created his own website for “white children of the globe,” which got more than half a million visits. He launched his own radio program, where he told “innocuous stories about his favorite country musicians […] before turning the conversation to ‘the survival and continued dominance of the great white race.’”
Here Saslow demonstrates how deftly Derek could repackage the precepts of white supremacy:
As Derek explained it to his listeners, white nationalists were not fighting against minority rights but fighting for rights of their own. […] They were trying to save whites from an “inevitable genocide by mass immigration and forced assimilation.” Theirs was the righteous cause. They were the social justice warriors.
The radio show became so popular that Don Black joined his son on the air, and together they broadcast live on AM radio, five days a week. At the age of 18, Derek won a local election to become a Republican committeeman. Already, he’d become “the leading light” of the movement.
But when Derek enrolled in a small, liberal arts institution called New College of Florida, he began to question his long-held beliefs.
Saslow’s narrative provides some wonderful moments of tension and suspense, especially when Derek finds himself unexpectedly inhabiting two different worlds:
In the mornings, while his classmates slept, [Derek] walked alone to a patch of grass outside the dorm and called in to the [radio] show to join his father on the air, and together they railed against the minority takeover. […] Then he hung up the phone, returned to the center of campus, and befriended whoever walked by.
Derek’s father believed his son had “embedded for three years with the liberal Left and [would emerge] with his ideology intact.” But Derek was accepting weekly invitations, from a group of new friends, to Shabbat dinner. He was studying the Middle Ages, and what he was learning didn’t align with what he’d read on Stormfront. And the burden of living two lives — the inquisitive, polite, open-minded college student, and the young, ambitious white nationalist — began to wear on him: “Every day he waited to be unmasked, the tension exploding within him in waves of anxiety and guilt,” writes Saslow.
The stress, Saslow shows, was so great that Derek decided to “out” himself by leaving a magazine in the college gym that profiled him under the title, “Derek Black: The Great White Hope.” Ironically, no one found it. But another student discovered his identity: Derek was listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Extremist Files,” described by Saslow as “a roll call of the most infamous bigots in America.”
Saslow does a masterful job depicting the resulting campus turmoil, as well as Derek’s growing angst. And he shows how thin the thread became that attached Derek to a new and larger world. When Derek’s small circle of friends discovered he was continuing to sneak away to Stormfront gatherings — despite all their efforts to engage with him — they considered withdrawing their friendship. “[A]ll of that sacrifice, and for what?” they worried. “So that Derek could talk with them about music, or religion, or contra dancing at Shabbat dinner and then go back to Tennessee for the weekend and speak to another audience of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites?”
Saslow describes an “awakening” filled with anxiety and setbacks. Derek, he points out, was acutely aware of the emotional price he’d have to pay for abandoning the movement. “For [Derek’s family], white nationalism wasn’t just a belief system; it was the glue that held together friendships and family,” he writes.
The book is a reminder of something that most of us know, but often neglect to heed: that if we want to encourage someone to think in new ways, genuine, prolonged engagement is infinitely more effective than simply excluding them or ranting against their beliefs. Since childhood, Derek had hardened himself to the words of those who raged against his radio program and his posts on Stormfront. As he explained to his girlfriend, Allison: “It’s my community, so I reflexively hear criticism of [white nationalism] sort of like some people hear your momma’s so fat jokes.” But listening to his friends, week after week, affected him profoundly.
Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post, researched his subjects thoroughly. By his own reckoning, he spent hundreds of hours with Derek. He conducted extensive interviews with members of Derek’s family; his girlfriend, Allison; and more than 50 of Derek’s college classmates and professors at the New College of Florida. He listened to Derek’s old radio shows and spent time with leaders of the white nationalism movement.
It’s no surprise that he depicts Derek with empathy. The more challenging task is to create a nuanced, compassionate portrayal of a committed white supremacist like Derek’s father. Don Black attended his first gathering of Nazis and white supremacists when he was just a junior in high school. He served jail time for a harebrained effort to overthrow the tiny island nation of Dominica and install in its place an all-white utopia. He was a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But he was also a proud and intensely devoted father. Derek was the light of his life.
And as Derek’s world became larger, Don’s world shrunk. During his son’s college years, Saslow describes Don holed up in the family’s secluded bungalow, evening after evening, checking the Stormfront website obsessively and keeping the television turned on through the night to stay abreast of cable news. (In one scene, Don and Chloe watch Tucker Carlson Tonight on one channel, then switch to another channel to watch it all over again — just to make sure they didn’t miss anything the first time.)
When his son renounced white nationalism, Don reacted with shock and disbelief, then sunk into a deep and resigned sadness. Most family members refused to allow Derek to enter their homes, so Don sat down for lunch at a restaurant with his son. “[He] stared across the table at Derek and tried one final time,” writes Saslow. “‘How did this happen?’ he said. ‘I still don’t understand any of this.’”
Why are some people open to change when their core beliefs are challenged, while others dig in their heels and retrench? One person’s story can’t give us the answer. But it’s a good question to keep asking.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education. She lives in Cincinnati.
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