As many sadly predicted, the campaign and election of a blatant racist like Donald Trump has led to a surge in the white nationalist movement in the United States. There’s been an escalation of right wing terrorist actions, aggressive recruitment for white nationalist groups, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a mainstreaming of white nationalist views through conservative outlets such as Fox News.
This article was originally published at Salon
But even as more white Americans start flirting with embracing the politics of white supremacy, there is at least one man who was born into the heart of the white nationalist movement and has since walked away. Derek Black, who has since changed his name, was once the princeling of the white nationalist world: Young, charismatic, intelligent. He was the son of the founder of Stormfront, the godson of David Duke, and an ambitious radio talk show host who had big ideas about taking their fringe views nationwide. And then, after a painful process of introspection and education, Black renounced racism and left the movement.
Tuesday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow released his new book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist,” which gives a detailed accounting of Black’s painful, complicated journey as he left the world of white nationalism and tried to find a new identity and community to replace the one he left behind.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you write this book? What was it about Derek’s story that interested you?
Once I learned about Derek, it felt like so much of his story traced the country’s past into the parts of this moment. I mean, he did so much of the mainstreaming of the language of white nationalism and this ideology. His family, with David Duke and Don Black, have done more to bring this stuff back into the mainstream public space than any other family.
Also, his story potentially pointed some kind of small way ahead. I feel like right now the country is so polarized. It just seems like everybody’s opinion about everything are so intractable. But here’s somebody who is the future heir to the white nationalist movement, and could somehow end up so far on the other side, is like a committed anti-racist, activated against his family.
If that kind of huge change is possible, then it feels like many of us can make the smaller changes, and be willing to challenge our own ideas about things.
Derek’s journey took a long time and a huge amount of pressure from others, though. What does that say to you about what it takes to change somebody’s mind about an issue like this?
In Derek’s case, it took a ton. White nationalism was the foundational part of his identity, and also his family. The costs for him were high. He was going to lose a family, his identity, and every relationship he’d made in the first 22 years of life, by walking away from it. I think it was harder for him to change than other people, because he’d invested so much in believing in it.
I wish I could say, after reporting the book, that I feel like, “Oh, it’s pretty easy to just sort of have a few good conversations with somebody and really impact their thinking about ideas like this.” I don’t think that’s true.
One of the things I found really interesting is how many different tactics people in Derek’s life used to try to bring him to the other side. Students on campus who were really effective in sort of civil resistance. They decided once they knew who Derek was, like, we’re going to protest his presence on campus. We’re going to shut down the school. We’re going to really make him feel shunned and unwelcomed here.
That was really effective. They cast Derek out from campus, and put him in a slightly more vulnerable position. I think he did start to see how horrible his views were and how scary they were other people.
That also opened him up for somebody like Matthew, who decided that, instead of trying to make a case against white nationalism, I’m just going to build a friendship. Just try to show Derek that Jews are not all bad.
Then there were other people like Allison and others on campus, who decided to use civil discourse, debate the facts with him, send him all kinds of racial studies.
It seems to me right now if there’s this idea that it’s either civil resistance or civil discourse. Certainly, the students at New College Student had a huge debate between those two factions. The truth is they really worked together, and they were both super necessary. I think if it had just been one of the other, Derek never would have changed his mind about anything.
What struck me reading your book was how much identity was at the center of it. How it was about family, community, sense of belonging. His transformation seemed, in no small part, to be due to the fact that he created a new social circle, a new community, on campus.
I think that’s definitely true. Derek had, in a way, this very typical college experience: Broken away from his family, moving to a different place, spending time with other people and just engaging with other parts of the world. It was totally essential.
For Derek, his life before college was so insular. He was spending time just with other white nationalists. That was his family. That was who he went on vacations with. He hadn’t spent a lot of time before with, for instance, a Jewish student.
In this book, you aren’t really in a character, but I know that you had to spend a ton of time with Derek and his friends, but also with Don Black. Did you speak with other white nationalists too, for this book?
That kind of reporting is sometimes pretty uncomfortable. I think in this case, also really essential, in order to really understand not only the ideology itself, but also how strong the hold was on Derek. How difficult it was for him to break away from that. Understanding his relationship with his dad was really important.
What’s their relationship now as far as you can tell? I mean, is it just gotten completely cold? How is that working out?
Yes, I think it’s pretty distant. As Derek becomes increasingly public, it probably makes it even more difficult. It’s sort of this hurt that Don feels again and again. I’ve said many times that he almost experienced this sort of like a death. I think he’s still grieving and can’t really get over it. For both of them, it was like the primary relationship in their lives for 22 years. Now it certainly is much, much more distant.
It struck me reading the book how their struggles were not unlike a lot of parents and children that don’t see eye-to-eye on certain issues. There was just something almost normal about it. Do you worry that this book might humanize white nationalists too much?
I think that the problem would be portraying people who think these things as cartoonish monsters. It would be comforting to think that somebody who’s done as much real damage as Don is a 100 percent evil. The thing that’s actually much scarier is that people are incredibly complicated.
Somebody like Don, who deserves no redemption and I certainly hope gets no redemption from the book, he also loves his kids. He also experiences grief in the same way that we do.
I think Don’s belief speak for themselves. He thinks awful things. He’s dropped tons of fear into the world and hurt a lot of people. Rather than writing from a place of pure judgment, which I don’t think is powerful, I tried to write from a place of fact which reveals who he is. I think that is absolutely damning enough.
David Duke is very different, even from Don. He spent his lifetime as sort of a carnival barker. He acts, all the time, as if he’s on the radio, giving a lecture about the awful things that he thinks about race or Jews in America. It’s almost impossible to get him to talk about his life with real human beings, even his godson.
Everything that I said about humanizing people . . . David Duke, he’s almost impossible to relate to in any sort of human way. That’s just not the way he interacts.
Derek, who has been quiet and trying to pursue academic studies, has been speaking out more because of the rise of Donald Trump. What is your sense of how white nationalists see the rise of Trump?
They feel like they’re winning. For all of Don’s life anyway, being the open racist was the guaranteed thing that everybody could criticize. You are the villain in the movie. Since the civil rights movement, in popular culture and in any kind of mainstream opinion, the racists were the bad guys.
Now, you have a president who, after something like Charlottesville, says something like, “There are good people on both sides.” Who, during his campaign, was re-tweeting white nationalists, parroting all kinds of just totally racist and factually incorrect information, about black crime statistics, immigration and crime in those ways.
They feel like their message has suddenly been brought into the public space, and in a way that it hasn’t been in a really long time.
I don’t think any of them think that Donald Trump, or really anybody in his administration is a committed white nationalist. They feel like Donald Trump understands the usefulness, and also the scary historical power of creating racial strife. I think that they feel like the country is more racially polarized than it ever has been, and that white people in America feel more disenfranchised than they ever have.
All of that makes them think that their movement is on the rise.
The other thing is that white nationalism — the scary thing about it is that it’s, in the context of U.S. history, a huge part, unfortunately, of who we are. It’s what this country has been for hundreds of years. It was, in many ways, set up as a white supremacist country. Unless we are willing to stare into the ugliness of that, those problems only continue to fester.
Tucker Carlson. Don Black and his wife really liked Tucker Carlson. Did that surprise you?
It did surprise me, although it doesn’t anymore. Unfortunately, for this book I had spend a bunch of time on Stormfront and places like it, they love Tucker Carlson. White nationalists, I would say, consider Tucker Carlson as one of their own. He carries the rhetoric of white nationalism into the public space in ways that nobody else does.
Don and Chloe [Hardin Black] not only watch his show but then re-watch it every night. They watch it twice.
Scarier for me was looking at Tucker Carlson’s ratings, and seeing that his show, in this moment, is crushingly popular. It’s the one broadcast that white nationalists hold dear, and also the most popular cable TV show going. I think that reveals some of our problems.
Yes. I was like, whoa. It didn’t surprise me that they watched him. It surprised me a little bit you would watch a cable news show twice in a row.
The sense of grievance that he’s preying on is this idea that like, “Your America is being taken from you.” That’s exactly what white nationalists are saying all the time. I mean, Tucker Carlson might not say on the air, “White Americans, your America is being taken from you,” but it’s clear who he’s speaking to. Donald Trump does some of the same things.
For white nationalists, stuff like that is music to their ears. They’re constantly trying provoke white people to action, get them to embrace this idea that your country is disappearing. You are now in danger. That there’s a white genocide, you’re a threatened species. That’s basically what Tucker Carlson’s entire show is about.
What about white nationalist views or ideas, do you think, is most out of step with how the public perceives it?
I think white nationalists, their ideal outcome for America a white-only country. What Don thinks and what he says is that eventually everybody who doesn’t pass some sort of litmus test for being white, which of course in and of itself is a hugely scientifically flawed idea, is going to be put on a train and sent somewhere else.
White nationalists will tell you that this will be very peaceful, that there’s not going to be any violence. That they’ll get everybody else out of the country, or, if that doesn’t work, they’ll create like a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest or in some in the south or some part of the country.
I think anybody who spends a few minutes thinking about that endpoint, not only realizes how ridiculous it is, but also how unbelievably horrific it is for anybody, to actually believe that that’s something that should happen.
I think there’s a point in the book at the end of the book, where Derek is sitting down with his dad trying to talk about this for the first time and is trying to make his father understand, you’re talking about going into homes, separating families, pulling people out and sending them other places.
Don owns it and says, yes, that’s what has to happen. I think, I’m not sure that most people understand that about white nationalists.
White nationalists talk about all the ways in which, unfortunately, a huge portion of white Americans agree with many white nationalist ideas. Like build a wall, let’s favor European immigration, and limit immigration from “shithole” countries. Let’s make sure that whites are protected in the work place and get rid of affirmative action.
These are the ideas that Derek ran in his own campaign when he was 20 years old. Never saying, “I’m a white nationalist,” but saying like, “Hey, isn’t that too bad that there are all these signs in Spanish now in our neighborhoods?” Few understand what a lot of white nationalists understand, that if they can use that common language that is unfortunately shared with many white Americans, they have a chance to have their ideas be very influential.
That’s one of the things that are increasingly difficult to deal with. The era of the Trump administration is where the line is between the white nationalists, this sort of rigid ideology of ethnic cleansing versus—
Garden variety racism, yes.
Yes, that sort of thing.
Before, I think major political figures in the country at least pretended not to be racist. Now, a lot of the major political figures in the country understand that, yes, they kind of have to play that game a little bit. It’s also really effective to wink at the racist across the bar. That’s what makes it really confusing. It is that there are, not only in policy but also in many of the political statements of our recent time, there’s very explicit racism involved in all of it, which makes it harder to differentiate fully committed white nationalist separatists with racists who are in positions of power.