It may be the exception that proves the rule in these partisan times, but the transformational tale of Derek Black is powerful and riveting all the same. Born into a prominent white nationalist family, he was nurtured to be the wunderkind of intolerance who would lead the next generation of avowed American racists.
The goal was to make America white again.
It is worth noting that – the continent’s indigenous people aside – Africans in chains already had been dragooned to North America before the Mayflower arrived.
But young Derek Black would turn away from that familial and ideological legacy of hate and embrace tolerance and inclusion. He had help along the way from caring friends who came to love him.
Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post, has written an eye-opening account of one man’s ideological metamorphosis. Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist is at once disturbing and uplifting.
Yes, a smart, engaging young man eventually saw the light. On the other hand, this smart, engaging young man was 24 before he stopped believing that African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and American Jews, among others, should find another country to inhabit.
Derek Black epitomized the new voice of the white nationalist movement – call it mainstreaming the message, or racism lite. He made no slurs or Nazi salutes and didn’t don white robes, as his father had. He even asserted that he wasn’t a white supremacist per se, but rather a white nationalist who was opposed to the mixing of the races and to immigrants from third-world countries like Haiti. He and fellow travelers insisted that it was whites, not minorities, who were being discriminated against, whites who were society's victims, whites who were facing genocide in an increasingly diverse America.
Derek Black is personable and articulate and people believed him when he said such things. In addition, his white nationalist pedigree was impeccable. His parents were racists; his father once headed the Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. His extended family members were virtually all white nationalists and he dated like-minded girls growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida. His godfather was David Duke, the nationally prominent white power proponent and former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Derek’s mother once had been married to Duke.
Before Derek was born, his father, Don Black, and a small group of ragtag racists were arrested in 1981 for plotting to invade the small Caribbean island of Dominica and turn it into a “white utopia.” They never made it out of the United States. Don Black served three years in federal prison.
Derek Black attended his first white nationalist convention at age nine and by high school, he and his father hosted a local radio program on which they discussed such burning questions as, are Jews white? They are not, the duo averred.
In 1996, Don Black also had established Stormfront, the nation’s first major racist website; one regular visitor was Dylann Roof. In 2015, Roof gunned down nine black congregants in a South Carolina church and is awaiting execution. Derek helped manage Stormfront and even started a separate white nationalist website for children.
In 2010, Derek Black went off to college, hoping that students and faculty would remain clueless about his racist bona fides (so much for white pride). Although New College in Sarasota was largely white, he began to encounter fellow classmates of color, including a Peruvian immigrant, as well as a nice young girl who – he discovered after growing fond of her – was Jewish.
It was a brave new world for Derek. Here, in the flesh, were the people whom he was denouncing in Internet forums and on the radio. And, surprise, surprise, he liked them, and they liked him – some of them even continued to engage with him after he was outed as a white nationalist. His friend Matthew still invited him to Shabbat dinners.
The tug of war for Derek’s soul was on: his family and old pals pulling in one direction, his new friends in the other.
In 2016, disturbed by the result of the presidential election, Derek Black went public with his apostasy. He recognized Donald Trump’s game plan. He had used it himself to win a seat as a committeeman for Palm Beach County in 2008, when he was just 19 years old.
In an opinion piece published in The New York Times titled “Why I Left White Nationalism,” he wrote: “Mr. Trump’s comments during the campaign echoed how I also tapped into less-than-explicit white nationalist ideology to reach relatively moderate white Americans … talking about how Hispanic immigration was overwhelming ‘American’ culture, how black neighborhoods were hotbeds of crime, how P.C. culture didn’t let us talk about any of it.”
Further on, the former white nationalist concluded, “Mr. Trump’s callous disregard for people outside his demographic is intolerable, and will be destructive to the entire nation.”