© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Rising Out Of Hatred': Former White Nationalist On Unlearning His Beliefs


If there's such a thing as a white nationalist prodigy, Derek Black might have been it. He was born to it, son of Don Black, the founder of the racist website Stormfront, the godson of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. He was deeply immersed through his homeschooling and his parents' activities into the philosophies of white supremacy. But the young Derek added his own touches, using tools like a daily radio show and rhetoric that avoided harsh racial slurs in favor of junk science and white grievance, all of that in an effort to win the hearts and minds of white Americans.

That is, until he enrolled at New College of Florida in 2010, when the worldview he had built up over a lifetime began to unravel. And, with the prodding of a surprisingly diverse group of friends, he began the painful process toward unlearning his beliefs. Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow has written a book about that journey. It's called "Rising Out Of Hatred: The Awakening Of A Former White Nationalist." He's with us now from the NPR bureau in New York.

Eli, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ELI SASLOW: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Derek Black is also with us from New York.

Derek, thank you so much for joining us as well.

DEREK BLACK: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I think a lot of people will find your story fascinating, but to you, it was all normal growing up, right? I mean, there was nothing you found strange about it?

BLACK: Yeah. It was very normal in the fact that it was what brought the family together. And we were a very close family and loved each other deeply and did a lot of stuff together. And the fact that we were all bound together by doing, you know, a political sort of thing felt extremely normal and did not feel at all unusual or incorrect.

MARTIN: So were you taught to be afraid of people who are different than you? Or was it more that we're just better than these people, and they need to leave?

BLACK: I'm not totally sure it was either. Like, that's complicated, really, because in the house, everybody would talk about the fact that, you know, we don't want anyone to have a worse life. We don't want to dominate anyone. It's just that everybody would be so much happier if they all had their own governments and their own nations and their own spaces. And there's a real strong sense that white people and probably East Asian people are just the most creative and the smartest.

But, you know, that's just an unfortunate fact of history, and that's just an unfortunate fact that people don't want to deal with. And that didn't feel like hate to me. Like, that felt like we were being misconstrued and misunderstood when people would say it was hate because that didn't sound like it.

MARTIN: So let's fast forward, though, and compress a lot here and say - you know, when did the cracks in that worldview start?

BLACK: Yeah. I think going to that college is also a sign of how confident we all were and that my family was in my conviction, my ability to think independently and to be curious. And I did not go there expecting to have my worldview challenged because I was quite confident that it was factually correct and that the arguments against it were ones that I had already heard and I had already figured out were wrong.

And there wasn't any one point at the college where I realized, oh, this is wrong. It was a long, slow engagement, both with the people who this belief system says shouldn't be in the country trying to wrestle with the fact that I'm friends with you. I don't quite see how I can reconcile saying in the long run you don't belong here. And then, bit by bit, having the evidence for it - all the stuff that sounds scientific and sounds factual - realizing that those things, one by one, weren't correct and we were abusing statistics. Like, that worked in concert over - what, two and a half years.

MARTIN: So, Eli, let's bring you into this conversation. Initially, when you reached out to Derek, and you wanted to talk to him about his story, he said, no. I want to disappear (laughter). I don't want to be part of this. I don't - well, how did you persuade him to - or how did it happen that he then decided that he did want to talk?

SASLOW: Yeah. I mean, when I first learned about Derek, he was sort of in hiding from his past. I mean, he changed his name at that point. He'd moved to a different part in the country, and he'd been very intentional about people not finding him. I think, for Derek, the thing that mostly did the persuading was our national rhetoric and our national politics. I mean, when I first reached out to Derek, and he said he was not interested, over the course of the next year, all of these talking points from his past and many of the talking points that he had worked to spread over the radio every day or during speeches - all of these seeds that he'd planted - they were growing all around him.

And he heard some of these very scary racist ideas surfaced in the presidential campaign in 2016 and in the rise of the far right in Europe and in the ways that the Black Lives Matter movement was talked about. And I think Derek on his own came to the conclusion that these were huge, powerful forces that needed to be confronted and reconciled with and that his silence, in some ways, was continuing to make him complicit.

MARTIN: So what's the takeaway, Derek? And, of course, Eli, I want to ask your take on that, too.

BLACK: Yeah. We absolutely do not have to accept society and the assumptions - the racist assumptions that people have. But they're also not going to go away. I think the disconcerting realization that I've had over these few years - I spent quite a few years trying to never talk about this again and thinking that the country was just going to fix itself and then realizing that that's not going to happen. It happens because we do stuff.

And I've been coming to the realization that it is harder to advocate for anti-racism than it is for white nationalisms. When you're saying that our society is fundamentally unjust, it is based on white supremacy, you're asking people to change and to do something and to sort of shoulder that burden. And that is a hard thing to ask of people, and it's a lot harder than telling them that things are fine and they don't need to do anything about it.

MARTIN: Eli, what's your takeaway from Derek's story?

SASLOW: I think, in addition to being - you know, to this book being the story of Derek's transformation, it's also the story of the people who he encountered who showed real, persistent courage to confront these very dangerous ideas.

MARTIN: Derek, before I let you go, can I ask you, what's your life now - to the degree that you feel comfortable saying?

BLACK: In my day to day life, I am a graduate student of history trying to pursue that and figure out how it integrates into my life. And before I met Eli, I wanted to never speak in front of anyone ever again. And I delved pretty deeply into history thinking that that could keep me away from talking about now and talking about our lives.

And since meeting Eli and these years of working with him to try to tell this story, I think I've come to realize that it's never that easy and that I have a responsibility to speak out about things that I have a weird platform to do. And sometimes that's not always pleasant. But I think it's important, and I'm still trying to figure out exactly how to do it.

MARTIN: And your parents?

BLACK: We have a relationship, and that's due in no small part to them. It was not always clear that we would be able to talk, and a lot of love on their part went into realizing that it's more important that we be able to speak as a family than that that be cut off just because of beliefs. But there's a gulf there, and a lot of those conversations are about how I'm making the country worse by advocating anti-racism and that I'm going to doom America if I keep advocating this stuff.

MARTIN: What do you do for Thanksgiving?

BLACK: I think, like a lot of college students, you left home, and then you come back, and you're hanging out, listening to the family conversations, and you're - have a new mindset, and you say, oh. I never really heard it that way before I left home.

MARTIN: That was Derek Black. He's the subject of a new book by journalist Eli Saslow called "Rising Out Of Hatred: The Awakening Of A Former White Nationalist." They were both with us from New York.

Derek Black, Eli Saslow, thanks so much for talking to us.

BLACK: Thanks a lot.

SASLOW: Thanks for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.