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Jonathan P. Baird: The journey of Derek Black

  • Derek Black, son of a former KKK grand wizard, was once seen as a rising star of white nationalism. Now, he is a critic of the movement. Washington Post



For the Monitor
Sunday, December 02, 2018

Sometimes a story comes along that is so instructive and inspirational, it demands to be told. The story of Derek Black, who transformed from a top leader of the white nationalist movement to a committed anti-racist, is such a story.

Black was not any routine, rank-and-file racist. He was the heir apparent to the American white nationalist movement. The son of Don Black, a longtime leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and the godson of David Duke, Derek Black had impeccable white nationalist movement credentials.

Yet, even though Black was expected to become the new American Hitler, in 2013 he left the white nationalist movement, rejecting and repudiating it.

How that transformation happened is a tale that offers critical lessons for anti-racists. The story of this transformation is told in a wonderful book, Rising Out Of Hatred, by Eli Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer.

As a young boy, Black was heavily influenced by his birth family. Both his parents were active white supremacists. His father was instrumental in setting up Stormfront, probably the largest neo-Nazi website. Black was a regular contributor, posting thousands of times on the site. He started a white pride website for children. Black also started an online racist radio station. He and his dad had a daily talk radio show.

At a white nationalist conference organized by David Duke shortly after the election of President Barack Obama, here is how Duke introduced Black: “I’d like to introduce the leading light of our movement. I don’t know anybody who has better gifts. He may have a much more extensive national and international career than I’ve had.”

Black was a smooth racist. Committed to mainstreaming white nationalism, he did not use racist slurs. He never advocated violence or breaking the law. He favored sanitizing and repackaging white nationalism. Instead of donning Klan robes for cross-burnings, Black favored business casual with a message against illegal immigration. It was an approach pioneered by Duke.

Black saw white people as the victims of discrimination. He aggressively argued that there was an ongoing white genocide. Black marshaled pseudo-scientific arguments to justify his views. He maintained that white people had bigger brains than non-whites and were genetically superior.

Saslow describes the debate in the white nationalist movement over what they called the Jewish question. At issue was whether Jews were considered white or outsiders. In 2008, Black wrote, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.” He felt Jews were not white.

Because Black was an excellent student, in 2010 he was admitted into New College of Florida, the state’s honors college. New College had a reputation as an alternative school, welcoming to nonconformists.

Once at college, Black quickly realized the danger in going public with his racist identity. As a survival move, he decided to hide it. In his first year, he made friends with a Peruvian immigrant student and two Jewish students. He also started dating a Jewish woman.

Black had difficulties squaring his ideological beliefs with his personal relationships. He struggled between the different parts of his life. He liked his friends and he agonized over the contradictions. He believed white Europeans needed to date only white Europeans but still he dated a Jewish woman.

Things came to a head for Black when he was outed as a white supremacist by another New College student writing a thesis on extremists. The student accidentally discovered the Derek Black he read about was a student at New College. The student decided to share this information online with the entire New College community. Black was studying in Germany at the time.

Black decided he was not going to leave New College. The disclosure about him provoked a major split among New College students about how to relate to Black. The split was between advocates for inclusion or exclusion. Some favored reaching out to him and some wanted to shame and shun him.

Genuinely liking him, Black’s two Jewish friends on campus decided to engage him with the hope he could evolve over time. They regularly invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Although they were horrified by his views, they did not write him off. They maintained an active dialogue. They practiced what Saslow calls nonjudgmental inclusion.

While it took a period of three years, Black eventually could not reconcile his old ideology with his friendships. Critical to this evolution was the role of Black’s girlfriend, Allison, who challenged his views continuously. In an email Black sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he renounced white nationalism, saying: “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s race requires me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious of their advancements.”

Black’s story provides a powerful lesson about the positive value of inclusion. It is an argument against the dehumanization of political opponents. We are all more than our current political positions. It is reductive to view our current political opponents statically rather than dynamically. To quote Black again: “Outreach and discourse won’t magically solve the problem of hate. But without those private conversations with people I cared about, I might not have seen the weaknesses in my arguments.”

At a time when America is so bitterly divided, Black’s example shows the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree. If a top racist in the country can transform into an anti-racist, there is hope for all kinds of people to grow and change. There remains no substitute for the power of persuasion.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)