In his book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Eli Saslow explores Derek Roland Black’s journey from darkness to light.
Black was the “rightful heir to America’s white nationalist movement—the son of Don Black, who founded the internet’s largest hate site, Stormfront.org [and who led the KKK for a decade]; and the godson of David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard [and politician].”
Duke, in fact, described Derek as “the leading light of our movement.”
Bright and articulate, Derek enrolled at the New College of Florida, a state honors college in Sarasota. At the same time, he was on a daily radio show (which he co-hosted with his father), gave speeches at nationalist conferences, and helped run Stormfront.
Derek’s strategy differed from other nationalists. Rather than directly appealing to hatred, “he spoke mostly about what he believed to be the facts of racial science, immigration, and a declining white middle class.” His conclusion was the same as other white nationalists: All non-white minorities would be forced to leave America when the nationalists gained power.
A minority of nationalists, such as Jared Taylor, saw a place for Jews in America. Derek and his father saw Jews as “abusers” and would expel them, too. Derek wrote, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.” He also promoted the work of Holocaust deniers, such as Ernst Zündel.
Derek’s short-term goal? Provide the intellectual firepower to “normalize these white nationalist ideas.”
Nonjudgmental Inclusion Leads to a Change of Heart
Derek lived and breathed in a world of hate—a world steeped in magnifying imaginary differences between races. In that sense, white nationalists did not differ from other tribes—maintain the loyalty to the tribe by minimizing contact with “others,” exaggerating differences, and denying common humanity with others.
Arriving at the New College, Derek got lost looking for new student orientation events. Juan Elias was also lost, and the two strangers walked together across campus finding their way. Elias was from Peru, and before college was living in Miami. On his radio show, Derek had placed Miami on “the front lines of the third-world invasion.”
Derek believed Hispanics, like Juan, were ruining the country; but he held himself to a standard “that in one-on-one interactions it was always best to be polite and kind.” Walking across campus in a world with others began to change Derek. This encounter was the beginning of a friendship with Juan.
Then Derek met Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew on campus. “Jews are NOT white. They worm their way into power over society,” Derek had written on Stormfront. But elements of their common humanity crept into Derek’s relationship with Matthew:
Matthew knew the lyrics to most of the country songs Derek liked to play, and he started joining Derek every few evenings to sing along with enthusiasm if not with pitch. Derek thought Matthew was funny and bright, with a sarcastic sense of humor and an interest in early world history that rivaled Derek’s own, and they agreed to share a study guide for a medieval history class they were taking together.
Playing his guitar in a campus courtyard, Derek met Rose, who stood-by enjoying the music. Again, Derek’s mind was conflicted. Rose was Jewish, but there was a mutual attraction, and easy conversation followed. Soon, Derek was actively hiding his nationalistic views and living in two worlds: Long talks into the night with his Jewish girlfriend and in the morning “laughing along as his [radio] co-host mimicked a Jew by whining about Israel in a nasal, high-pitched voice.”
Never had Derek spent so much time with an “outsider” to his white nationalist tribe.
Then, a New College student forum exposed Derek’s hidden life. Expelled from student organizations and ostracized by many students, Derek moved off campus. Some students dropped classes he was enrolled in. Others menaced him, shouting, “How does it feel to be a neo-Nazi?” Some students ostracized Derek’s friends.
Derek’s relationship with Rose ended, but Juan and Matthew didn’t abandon their friend. Matthew invited Derek to the Friday night Shabbat dinners he hosted for both Jews and non-Jews. Derek participated.
Shaming others had no place in Matthew’s life. Matthew was angered by the “small-mindedness” he had encountered on campus:
Matthew had already experienced enough shaming at New College to believe that exclusion only reinforced divides. He was an observant Jew among atheists, a political conservative in a place of radical liberals, an aspiring hedge fund manager in a school of rabid anticapitalists.
Before he arrived at college, Matthew had adopted “nonjudgmental inclusion” and “respecting human dignity” as guiding principles in his life. To Matthew, “Derek was sharp, rational, and good at making arguments with outsiders.” However, instead of debating Derek, Matthew set out to build a relationship with him.
“What information,” Mathew wondered, could he “provide during the course of one Shabbat dinner that would reorder Derek’s worldview?” Believing friendship was “potentially transformative in and of itself,” Matthew said, “The goal was really just to make Jews more human for him.”
Shabbat dinners became weekly events. Derek became friends with Moshe whose grandfather survived a Nazi concentration camp. Matthew, Moshe, and Juan pretended “to be oblivious about his white nationalist convictions, so long as Derek treated them with respect and kept his beliefs to himself.”
More transformative encounters followed. He “listened to Jewish poems about the Holocaust.” As Derek followed his “intellectual curiosity,” others approached him. “A Haitian immigrant stopped him on campus and told him what it was like to grow up in a black neighborhood of Orlando” being harassed by police.
At a Shabbat dinner, he met Allison Gornik who became his girlfriend. Allison “thought the best way to make an effective argument against Derek’s beliefs was to first make a legitimate effort to fully understand them.” She bravely attended a nationalist conference with Derek and heard speakers filled with hatred and anger whip up the crowd by “insulting Jews, Hispanics, blacks, and immigrants.” Allison would later help Derek dismantle his logic and beliefs.
How Derek Changed; How We Can Change
Even when looking at Derek’s destructive mindset, Matthew saw his common humanity with Derek. Speaking about Derek, Matthew told a friend, “In some ways, he just has way bigger versions of the same hang-ups we all have.” Matthew observed, “it was human nature to separate into groups, to define oneself against the other.” If Derek’s mindset differed only in degree from his own, why would Matthew condemn him?
How do any of us rise above the baser thoughts of the tribe? Commerce is one way. In my FEE essay, “Walking Away” from the Animus of Identity Politics, I wrote,
The rich “extended order” of modern life has emerged as we have risen above the tribe. In commerce, we trust strangers and cooperate with people from all over the world. In commerce, we treat people equally and fairly with blinders to their tribal identities.
The New College itself is a sheltered environment, but it was larger than the insular tribe Derek came from. Campus friendships and encounters began to have a leavening impact on Derek’s mindset.
Unlike Matthew, Allison confronted Derek head-on. She questioned,
What was with all the Holocaust denial and the Germany worship? Why so much militant terminology? Why was everyone so obsessed with Jews? And didn’t Derek notice all the condescending code words for minorities that littered every talk, like “their kind,” “others,” “insurgents,” “third-worlders,” “infiltrators,” and “enemies”?
Allison shared studies of “how minority victims of prejudice were more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, suppressed immunity, depression, and heart disease.” “It’s not just that you’re wrong,” she told him. “It’s that you’re actually hurting people.”
Do you “believe a concept like [deportation of minorities] could be humane or in any way reasonable?” she asked Derek. She confronted him:
Did he somehow not understand why that idea would be threatening for Rose, or Moshe, or Matthew? Or for Juan, who was just now in the final stages of getting his American citizenship? When the great deportation came, would Derek himself be willing to break into their homes and force them out? Or would he stand by and watch as his father and other Stormfront members did it for him?
To drop a mindset, we must recognize that our beliefs give rise to our interpretations of the world. This initial step is difficult. Most of us believe we see the world objectively; and thus, we believe our thinking merely arises in response to what we see. A fish takes as a given water, and most of us take for granted our beliefs.
If Derek had not recognized that his perceptions of minorities were an effect and not the cause of his beliefs, he could never have changed his mind.
The next steps are to regret and then release one’s conditioned mindset. If you realize you are bleeding because you are grinding cut glass in your hand, you will want to release the glass and stop blaming others for your pain. At this stage, Derek saw playing the part of a white victim was absurd.
The final step is reorientation to a different way of seeing. Reorientation requires a little willingness to look in a different direction. Derek was willing, and he received the help he needed to shift his worldview.
With his shift in mindset, Derek saw a truth of life: “Once you think about the world on a global scale, it actually starts to seem super interconnected and almost small.” From that awareness of interconnectedness, he told Allison, “It’s impossible to apologize to everyone I hurt, because I basically hurt the entire world.”
Derek’s transformation and public renunciation of his former white nationalist tribe took years.
Today, both Allison and Derek are studying to earn PhDs—Derek at the University of Chicago and Allison at Michigan State University.
Eli Saslow’s narrative of Derek’s journey is riveting, moving, and inspirational.
This article has been republished with permission from the Foundation for Economic Education.