Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Book Reviews

How to Save a Life

When we dismiss evil philosophies, we need to avoid throwing out the person.

Tony Rehagen

Derek Black, 2017; Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.

Derek Black was born into hate. He was a child prodigy of the white nationalist movement in America. His godfather and mentor was none other than David Duke, and his father, Don Black, was a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who was once imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the government of Dominica and establish a white utopia on the tiny Caribbean island. Don later founded Stormfront, a website and online forum for Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and general racists to perpetuate the myth of “white genocide” at the hands of foreign interests, immigrants, and minorities.

As a child, Derek started a children’s section of that website, hung Confederate flags on the walls of his bedroom in West Palm Beach, Florida, and cohosted The Don and Derek Black Show on Internet radio. There, the well-spoken preteen pushed conspiracy theories of an economy and a manipulative media controlled by Jews, pointed to the pseudoscientifically “proven” intellectual inferiority of black people, and questioned whether the Holocaust was actually as severe as so many Jews and Jewish sympathizers claim. Derek rode that notoriety to speaking engagements at white nationalist gatherings all over the world. He became something of figurehead, the heir apparent of the movement.

All of that is prologue to Eli Saslow’s book Rising Out of Hatred, which pivots on the moment Derek decides to leave home for Sarasota to pursue degrees in medieval history and German at New College of Florida, a small public institution that is one of the state’s top liberal arts honors schools. Saslow, a staff reporter for the Washington Post, points out that while New College’s student population of 800-plus was 80 percent white, the school, built on the former estate of circus magnate Charles Ringling, had also been “listed in college guides as the most liberal school in Florida, the best school for hippies, the most gay-friendly, the most pot-friendly, the most likely to ‘transform your worldview.’” The first chapter closes on a day shortly before Derek left for Sarasota in his packed secondhand PT Cruiser, when a listener called in to Don and Derek’s radio show and asked the father if he was worried about his son living alone “among the enemy in a hotbed of multiculturalism.” Don laughed off the notion and said that his son was a staunch nonconformist more likely to change the minds of his fellow students than vice versa.

At first, Derek was able to straddle both worlds. He continued to post on Stormfront and regularly call in to his radio show, even doing so at times from the New College quad. He even organized his own conference in Tennessee, where he taught ready-made talking points with which his followers could counter liberal arguments against the white nationalist ideology. Meanwhile, the redheaded boy walked anonymously among the New College student body, befriending a Peruvian immigrant named Juan Elias, attending the weekly Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish student named Matthew Stevenson, and even dating a Jewish girl. None of these students knew anything of Derek’s background.

Derek’s tightrope walk between lives at the former home of a Ringling brother lasted only a semester. While studying abroad in Europe—a sojourn that included a stopover in Italy to visit David Duke, who kept a home in the Italian Alps—he logged on to the New College online forum, the hub of student body discussion and debate, and found that a senior who was working on a thesis about US paramilitary groups had stumbled upon Derek’s profile on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Watch blog. The student had posted links to Derek’s Stormfront posts and radio-show rants. Derek Black, white nationalist wunderkind, had been outed.

In response, Derek initially held fast to the ideology he had been raised with. He hid behind the oft-dispensed party line that while white nationalists are by definition racist, he was not a white supremacist. He insisted that he did not hate or wish harm to people of other races or ethnicities, especially not those whom he had befriended. He did not use slurs or advocate violence. He maintained that he simply wanted separate equality for whites, whom he claimed were being pushed out of power and influence and eradicated as part of the process of white genocide.

Some students called for Derek’s expulsion, others for a less formal campus-wide ostracization. Derek and college administrators agreed that it would be in everyone’s interest if he were granted a special dispensation to live off campus (which freshmen ordinarily were not allowed to do). The administration understood that it would be hypocritical for New College, as a liberally minded institution, to silence someone for having a different point of view. More importantly, Derek’s friends, Elias and Stevenson, thought it wiser to continue to engage Derek, to keep inviting him to Shabbat, and to try to better understand his beliefs so that they could facilitate civil debate.

At this point, a key character, Stevenson’s roommate, Allison Gornick, took the stage. A fellow student with a liberal bent, Gornick became romantically involved with Derek despite her deep reservations about his beliefs. She went home with him to have dinner with his family. She even went undercover to attend one of his and Don’s conferences in Tennessee. But all the while, she persistently challenged Derek in private, picking away at the pillars of his bigotry by sending him articles, academic papers, and scientific studies that refuted his white nationalist pseudoscience. Gradually he backed off his notion that whites were intellectually superior and that all minorities needed to be deported.

Eventually, Derek publicly disavowed his entire white nationalist past, a move that got him banished from his family. And when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with a populist platform that eerily echoed the white nationalist appeal to a white American race somehow oppressed by a surging minority population, Derek felt partially responsible, and became an active opponent of his former allies.

Trump’s surprise electoral victory rocked the world of public opinion polling. Pollsters, politicos, pundits, and reporters—most of whom had predicted Trump’s defeat, in many cases by a sizable margin—dove back into their spreadsheets, scouring every conceivable demographic for a previously overlooked answer. One answer they found was education. According to the Pew Research Center, national exit poll data showed that college graduates had backed Hillary Rodham Clinton over Trump by a nine-point margin. Voters without a college diploma, meanwhile, had sided with Trump by eight points.

There are various ways to interpret this information, flattering either to Clinton’s supporters or to Trump’s. Here’s mine: College isn’t just an institution where students memorize dates and places. It’s a place where young people, given their first taste of independence, learn to think for themselves. For many young adults, particularly those who grew up in remote rural areas or homogenous suburban subdivisions, college is the first time they share a space with people different from themselves. A Christian finds herself in a study group with the first Muslim she’s ever met. A white farmhand lives in a dorm with the only Hispanic urbanite he’s ever known. Young men and women still deciding what sort of adults they are going to be are forced to confront their preconceived notions in the flesh.

Rising Out of Hatred is more than systematic disassembling of the white nationalist ethos. It should be seen as a case study for people of any political persuasion on how ideological segregation breeds disparity, anger, and hatred. We now have the ability to tailor our information intake, closing ourselves off in comforting layers of news, opinion, and history that only affirm our beliefs.

When it comes to a philosophy like white nationalism, we’re quite right to decide that there’s not much there that we need to understand or engage with. But when we dismiss evil philosophies, we also throw out the person who holds them and the life experiences that helped form those perspectives. However uncomfortably, though, we share this country—we don’t really have the option, come election day, of wishing other people away. And if we want to see more Derek Blacks, we’ll have to help them see that throwing away their philosophy is something they can do without throwing themselves away, too.