Jonny Auping | Longreads | September 2018 | 19 minutes (5,065 words)
Before Richard Spencer became one of white nationalism’s poster boys, before Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos helped normalize stringently racist ideologies, before Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, and before the Charlottesville riots, no one was more suited and prepared to head this generation of prejudice than Derek Black.
Derek’s father, Don, founded Stormfront, the largest online community for racists. His godfather was David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard and probably the most notorious white nationalist alive. By his mid-teens Derek was living up to that pedigree. He hosted a daily radio show in which he advocated for an all-white America and denied the legitimacy of the Holocaust. By 2008, among his community, Derek was a prodigy.
How Derek became a white nationalist is relatively obvious: He was a product of his environment. But in his new book, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Eli Saslow dives into a much more complex and emotional journey: How Derek dug his way out.
Saslow’s detailed account of Derek’s time at New College in Florida — from his early double life as a student and white nationalist figurehead to his eventual public disavowing of his previous ideology in a letter to the SPLC — required interviews with classmates who publicly shunned him and ones who chose to engage patiently with him (including Jewish and immigrant students who reached out to him), as well as with committed white nationalists, included Derek’s immediate family. In his reporting, Saslow spent “hundreds of hours” with Derek himself, and gained access to personal emails, Facebook, and g-chats containing intense debates, which now serve as the gradual debunking of racist ideologies.
The former Pulitzer Prize winner took the time to speak with Longreads about Derek’s transformation, the rise of white nationalism in the U.S. and whether or not there’s a proper way to engage someone who promotes hateful rhetoric.
Jonny Auping: When did Derek Black first come on to your radar?
Eli Saslow: I was writing about Dylann Roof , who shot 10 people at the church in Charleston, and through him, I was learning about Stormfront, which for two decades was basically the biggest racist website in the world. I felt a little bit ignorant that I didn’t know very much about it. That’s a place where Dylann Roof had spent time, where he grabbed a lot of the language that was in his manifesto. I started going on Stormfront, just trying to learn about him.
At that time, the biggest thread on that board was about Derek, who I’d never heard of. But I just started reading through this very public thread of Don Black, his father, talking about what happened to his son. I pretty quickly filed that away like, “Once I finish writing about this, this is an idea with some serious potential.” That’s kind of how it started.
He feels just so badly about how he behaved and what he did for a part of his life, there’s a part of him that just recoils at the idea that people could think this is a positive and meaningful, and in some ways, hopeful narrative.
You mention in the introduction that Derek denied your initial request for an interview when he was attempting to maintain some privacy in his new life. Then in the summer before the 2016 Election he emailed you and said, “Let’s find a time to meet.” Did that email catch you off guard?
No, because I continued to be trying [to convince him]. First it took me a little while to find him because Derek intentionally made himself difficult to find. He’d changed his name and he’d gone across the country and was enrolled in the school he was going to under his middle name. Once I figured out where he was, eventually I found an address where he was living and called the landlord without saying why I was reaching out. After that Derek responded to my initial email saying “This is not something I’m interested in.” I think at that point he thought white nationalism was a terrible thing, but he was done with it. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He sort of thought it was this thing from his past. He was going to start this wholly new life.
But we emailed occasionally over the next year and what we emailed about was what was going on, not only in the country, but also in Europe in terms of the rise of this nationalist racial rhetoric. Within that year, he began to realize that this wasn’t just part of his past or the country’s past. I think he realized that it was this very real threat to what was happening in the country.
I think he felt, in a small part, culpable for spreading that, and in large part, like it was his responsibility to push back against it after he had spent all these years pushing for it.
Your initial meeting with him was for a 2016 story in the Washington Post. Did you already know during that process that you wanted to do something more significant or book-length about Derek’s life story?
I think I knew while I was writing that story. For a story like that I think I made two trips to spend time with Derek and one to spend time with Don, his father. That story was maybe 6,000 words, but I just felt like I was writing a cliff notes version of what was there. I still only had a very general inclination of the depth of it.
His transformation was so huge and so profound that doing it in any short form almost hurts the believability. A transformation like that is so big and it happens over so much time and there’s so much nuance. It’s not like he just changed his mind. It was a two or three year tortured process.
Also, if it was a book that some people were going to get something from in terms of what it takes for someone’s ideology to change, that all needed to live fully in order to honor how difficult that is.
Did you have to sell him on agreeing to such a deep dive into his life?
I definitely had to build trust with him, first to do the story. That took a lot of time. The first day that I spent time with Derek he didn’t want to tell me where he lived. So we met in Ann Arbor, which I thought is where he lived, but in fact he had sort of staged that as the place where we would meet and hang out and spend time because he wasn’t sure yet. He was just very cautious. The first few days he referred to his friends with code names. So Allison [his classmate and eventual girlfriend], who I would later spend tons of time with and read all of their g-chats, at first she was “Sailing Friend” because he had met her while they were sailing. Matthew, who was his closest friend in college, was “Shabbat Friend” because he had invited him to so many Shabbats for dinner. He was very guarded. That definitely took time. We were both building trust.
On the first trip it was code names. Then on the second trip there was more comfort. Then on the third trip I was spending time with Allison and on and on it goes from there to the point where with the book it was like, “To do this justice, I not only want to spend time with you guys, I really would like all of your emails, g-chats, everything” so I could really write about this transformation with what had happened instead of recreating it.
So maybe he had the same sense of, if the story is going to be told, then he wants it to be as complete as possible.
Totally. I think also, Derek had — he still does — so much shame and embarrassment and self-doubt about all of the things that he did that it was — and continues to be — difficult for him to grasp that people could think he did something positive. He feels just so badly about how he behaved and what he did for a part of his life, there’s a part of him that just recoils at the idea that people could think this is a positive and meaningful, and in some ways, hopeful narrative. I think that’s something he’s still trying to get his head around.
Beyond Derek, you talked to his direct family, his friends, classmates, romantic interests, as well as a number of white nationalists. I would imagine for any number of those perspectives there’s some reason for hesitancy to go on the record. Was Derek able to initiate those conversations for you or did you regularly find yourself making your case for why they could or should trust you?
I think what you said reminds me of another reason why the book was so appealing to me. The cast of characters was this hugely wide tent. You have a Peruvian immigrant trying to get his citizenship who befriends Derek on campus, then you have David Duke, and this cast of characters was so broad and all tied into this narrative. That was really interesting to me.
But in terms of gaining trust from people around Derek, for people from New College, once he was participating in the story, I think they felt pretty free to participate, too.
With his family and with white nationalists, it was definitely more complicated. I spent time with Richard Spencer, because he comes into the narrative and Don sort of begins mentoring him after Derek leaves. The bulk of the reporting in that space was with Don. And Don I think participated in part because the book facilitated this conversation with Derek that he wasn’t having otherwise. The hurt is still so profound on his end. He’s also so curious. It’s his kid, he still wants to know everything about him, but he and Derek don’t talk like that anymore. In some ways, I think going through these times with me was a way of engaging with him in a way that he probably missed.
That felt like a little bit of a different kind of reporting. I was always running tape and it was a series of very long conversations going through his life and everything with Derek. He was certainly unflagging in his participation. I’m sure he would not have done that if Derek wasn’t participating, but it’s not like Derek needed to encourage or needle him to participate. But there were other people in Derek’s family who were much more reticent and just did not want to talk. That part was a little hard.
There’s a really big fissure or debate about what’s a more effective way to enact change: civil discourse or civil resistance. Actually… both of those things are required.
The relationships are definitely the most compelling aspects of the book because they’re with people who he cared deeply about and who cared deeply about him, and they were people on both sides of being committed to white nationalism and who were offended by it. You brought up Don. Obviously from one perspective, he exposed his adolescent son to this extremely hateful rhetoric, but you also made sure to convey all these relatable traits of parenthood that Don embodied. He was supportive of all of Derek’s outside interests. You tell this story of putting Derek on national TV at 11-years-old to talk about white nationalism but only after the station agreed to get him tickets to a Disney theme park. Was it important to you to convey how much Don did genuinely love his son?
Yeah, it was super important. In part because that’s the truth, and the truth is the most important thing. But also because if the reader doesn’t understand how strong and how real that bond is, and how there’s so much mutual admiration and love in that relationship, then I’m not sure the reader could understand how hard, and ultimately so courageous, it was for Derek to do what he did. My hope is that readers would understand that Derek knows this is going to crush the person that’s always been the most important to him in his life.
That was the hardest balance to strike in the book. Don’s such a complicated character because he’s done irredeemable things and he also asks for, and I hope gets, no redemption. He doesn’t change his mind. He has some doubts about the way he went about some things, but he still believes that his ideology is this righteous thing. He ends at the same place.
I tried to write about him with the full humanity that that ideology often denies people. I hope I struck that balance. It’s definitely something I thought about a lot. He deserves to be complicated, but I don’t want it to be redemptive for him in any way. His actions speak for themselves.
Do you know if Don’s read the book?
He has. When they sent out galleys of the book to people, a few ended up on eBay, and Don got a copy from that. Don outwitted the publishers.
I never felt fearful spending time with him. I never felt physically uncomfortable — actually that’s not true, I never felt physically threatened. He was always very curious about me — my dad grew up Jewish, my mom grew up Christian; I grew up basically without religion. He wanted to know about that stuff. It’s like he was trying to find a way to tell himself This guy’s OK.
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Something that I noticed was that the book chronicled Derek’s transformation in these two concurrent ways. There was the factual context of where Derek was or what was happening in his life or in American society at the various stages. But then coinciding with that was the back and forth shifts in his head from his most stridently racist beliefs to when he disavowed white nationalism. You managed to really clearly sync up his thought process with the timeline of his life. Sometimes you had essentially a transcript of what he was thinking. How did you go about getting such detailed accounts of his evolving thought process?
That’s a really good question and something that was a work in progress in the book. His transformation was so gradual that it doesn’t make for a super satisfying reading experience if you’re always guessing what percentage of a white nationalist is he now? What about now? You want some sense of some moments that really moved him along. The huge advantage I had in that was a close reporting relationship with Derek. So when I was done reporting and I was writing, probably every single day I would text or call him as I was going through all my notes and trying to figure out what was happening in this moment, and I could ask him, “What was going on in your head? What were you thinking?”
I tried really hard in the book not to recreate dialogue because I had this great gift of all this dialogue that existed in these G-chats and everything else. But sometimes getting inside Derek’s head was the hardest part because the truth is, between Derek and Allison, Allison wrote more and her thoughts were better archived. So really what I had to do often was rely on Derek himself.
This would have been a super hard book to write if the story had happened in 1993. They’re millennials and they archive their lives so nothing was ambiguous. I know on this day you told Allison this because I have it on G-chat. I had thousands of pages of their Facebook conversations and emails. It was fairly easy for me to timestamp stuff. Then it’s easier to put them back in that moment. I can be like Do you remember on this night you were having this conversation…and that sort of helps invoke memories.
Derek is a fascinating character in that at times he comes across as potentially brilliant, but more specifically he’s clearly someone who regularly practices critical thinking. In all this time you spent with him, did he stand out to you as this very unique person or was he more normal than you expected?
No, your read on him is exactly right. I don’t want to just throw around the word brilliant, but he’s insanely smart in ways that I am not. He’s also very quirky. I think some of that is a result of his upbringing. The way his parents chose to educate him, they fondly refer to as “unschooled.” It’s not even homeschool. They were basically like Pursue what you’re interested in. I know in the case of my own kids that would be a total disaster. For 99 percent of kids they wouldn’t do anything. For Derek it was like Oh, I’m really interested in how baby clown fish are hatched from the egg. He’s just intensely curious, which is a very endearing quality.
Frankly, he and Allison both helped educate me because their brains work in ways that mine doesn’t. For them, that meant making sure I do justice to the fact that this was not a change of Oh a few people of different races and religions reached out to him, and he liked them. That kind of thing would never be enough to change Derek’s mind. It might have been enough to change my mind. For Derek, what was also foundational to the transformation was a new understanding of world history and racial science that made him realize that all this stuff was bullshit.
It’s a difficult thing to celebrate as heroic because all he did was change his mind from something that was terrible to something that’s the basic level of human decency.
You mentioned the way his parents educated him. This might have been reading too much into some of these chapters, but I got the sense that the way Don encouraged Derek’s pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking might have ironically played a hand in his eventual debunking of white nationalist logic. Is that a stretch to say?
I think that’s true. I feel really glad that that’s there in the margins because I think that’s there in Don’s head. Maybe, in some ways, Don has been looking for who to blame and what made Derek change his mind. For Don, the most unsettling of those answers is that maybe by raising a kid to be so curious, it was Don who helped point the way out.
It’s like the best aspects of his fatherhood are what he regrets the most somehow.
Exactly. It’s so complicated.
Allison is one of the three main characters in this book. I would say she’s clearly the single biggest factor in Derek’s dissociation of white nationalism. What do you think it was that empowered her to have so many patient and relentless debates with Derek?
I think it’s a really good question.
Right now, especially on the Left, there’s a really big fissure or debate about what’s a more effective way to enact change: civil discourse or civil resistance. Actually, in the experience of reporting the book, the obvious answer was that it’s not a binary choice. Both of those things are required.
The fact that so many people on campus vociferously protested Derek’s presence, first made him think more about how horrible these ideas were and their impact on other people. And then it also opened him up to these invitations from these few kids on campus, where if he wasn’t getting so pushed out, he probably never would have accepted.
So, for Allison, that relationship was so gradual, starting from her being one of those people who resisted his presence on campus and telling her roommate, “If you’re inviting this guy over I’m not coming out of my room,” to slowly spending time around him and getting to see him for something beyond his ideology. She is so intuitively empathetic and has such a good sense of people, she quickly figured out something doesn’t fit. He’s smart. He’s really kind. He’s hanging out with this diverse group of people. He’s respectful. She couldn’t fit it together in her head. She’s so curious about people and wants to make sense of them. She wanted to figure it out.
Was what Derek eventually did brave?
Yeah, I think it was brave.
It’s a difficult thing to celebrate as heroic because all he did was change his mind from something that was terrible to something that’s the basic level of human decency. But especially as Derek now commits himself more to anti-racist activism to push back against who he was and what he believed and what he helped spread, there’s a lot of courage in that. Maybe not heroism, but definitely courage. He knew once he sent that letter to the SPLC that his relationships, not just his family, but everyone in his life that was important to him for the first 22 years, was over. That’s a really hard thing to do.
It also required courage by so many other people on that campus including the people of color who made it clear how he and that ideology made them feel and also the people like Matthew or Allison or whoever else who chose to engage.
His change in perspective all basically takes place at New College, which is this very liberal university. In general, college campuses in this country have been the most consistent sources of progressive activism and political engagement for decades. Do you think that the recent campus “free speech movement” by the far right represents any kind of shift in that trend or is that an inaccurate representation of student populations?
That’s a really good question. The true answer is I don’t really know.
[My family and I] live in Portland, Oregon. We live right by Reed College, which I think is pretty similar to New College in that it’s very far left. It’s a very socially aware group of students. Writing there was very informative for me just because the things that happen on campus gave me a much better understanding of New College. [There was] a rising clash between students who were practicing very intense forms of civil disobedience and having some success and students who were going about things in more diplomatic ways and having different kinds of success.
With Derek and Allison, I think they still feel conflicted about what’s the right thing to do. Despite her own experiences with Derek, I’m sure Allison would not tell you that the best thing to do with Richard Spencer is to go be nice to him and befriend him. That’s why with Derek I think it was fairly unique in that she knew him and she could see that something didn’t fit. What’s happening on campuses is super interesting. New College is so progressive that it’s in some ways five years ahead of the rest of the country.
Don started the nation’s most active white supremacy website and Derek was this young radio star advocating for white nationalism. If you take those two as a whole, can you draw a straight line from them to mainstream white nationalists like Richard Spencer now?
For sure. That’s what both keeps Derek racked with guilt and motivates him to continue to push back from the other side. The amount of damage that he did is not quantifiable, but he was on the radio every single day for three years. He started this white pride website on Stormfront for kids. I can’t say Richard Spencer specifically, but hundreds of people like Richard Spencer went on to those things and got information from those places. They all knew about Derek. Who knows how many people he either turned into white nationalists or made more committed white nationalists? He doesn’t know either and that’s super haunting.
Who knows how many people he either turned into white nationalists or made more committed white nationalists? He doesn’t know either and that’s super haunting.
A theme of the entire book is that thoughtful and patient dialogue is at the core of Derek’s transformation. Is that something that’s harder to come by in 2018 when social media has such a large hand in the discourse?
I think it is harder to come by. I also think that it’s not that long ago that this happened. Social media has come farther, but many of those elements were already in place.
The other thing is, those kinds of conversations weren’t coming from 20 people. Matthew, Allison, a handful of other people had this profound impact by being willing to talk to him about this stuff. I guess I’m hopeful that, in small-scale situations, it’s still totally possible to have them.
So Derek is especially unique in his desire to exhibit logic, but I guess what I’m asking is, it worked in Derek’s case, but is it realistic to hope someone could engage patiently with a white nationalist who’s spewing hateful and threatening rhetoric.
I think it’s really hard to generalize because I think it totally depends on the white nationalist. Having spent time with him, do I think Richard Spencer would be capable of changing based on that kind of approach? I wouldn’t. Do I think David Duke would be able to? No.
The thing that I do think on a smaller scale — in all of our lives and in a country that is increasingly polarized and divided — is that if you build a relationship first and you establish some mutual trust that’s separate from conversations about ideology, that engenders a lot of goodwill towards beginning to moving someone and having an impact on what they’re thinking. If you reach out to a stranger or someone who doesn’t care about you, in that situation, civil discourse isn’t going to do very much I don’t think. In the people in all of our lives where we find some of their opinions troubling, if they’re people we care about and they care about us, as evidenced in the book, I do have a lot of hope that dramatic changes are possible.
The larger context behind this book is that until 2008 there was a status quo in the White House since its founding, and it seems like the election of the first black president called these white nationalists to action and then the election of this radically uncensored one has definitely empowered them. Has the white nationalist movement actually grown since, say, 2001, or are they simply louder and more mainstream in 2018?
That’s a really great question. It has grown in that parts of what is considered mainstream in this country and parts of what is considered white nationalist extremism, the gap has narrowed [between them]. So I think people who are avowed white nationalists have the increasing realization that Wait a second, there’s a potentially large portion of the country that basically agrees with what we’re saying. The country is increasingly racially fractured.
Also, based on the problematic history of the U.S., white supremacy and the United States have not had a distant relationship. Some of the things that have happened in the last few years have white nationalists saying Well, if someone like Donald Trump is saying “There are good people on both sides” in Charlottesville then maybe this isn’t some outsider, pariah movement. It’s become an increasingly plausible mainstream political movement. I think that’s where they see the huge opportunity.
If people like the president are saying Those white nationalists might have had good intentions there’s a normalizing of that kind of divisive talk. None of the people that I talked to who were white nationalists thought that Trump was a white nationalist in any way, but they thought that he would act as a bridge to a more white-centric political movement because he would increase polarization, which has certainly been true. And he would also sort of empower this sense of disenfranchisement and aggravation that is felt in some parts of White America.
So I’m going to take that response and ask you — you’ve spent a lot of time with white nationalists discussing their beliefs and how they communicate their messages — so based on your definition, is Donald Trump a white nationalist?
No. I don’t think he’s a white nationalist because I don’t even think he would know how to define that or what it was. But I think he certainly sympathizes with a lot of white nationalist ideals and positions. That’s been demonstrated again and again through things like how he responded to confederate statues coming down. The coded things he talks about in terms of “his own great genes” and stuff like that. Then small things like photos of groups gathered at the White House that are so absent of diversity.
What white nationalists think is that Donald Trump fits squarely in this 20 percent or 25 percent of this country that they believe essentially identifies with the core values of white nationalism if it can be messaged correctly.
Their messaging has mainstreamed it in some ways. But also the current political climate of the country has empowered that 20 percent. The messaging doesn’t have to go as far as it used to because that part of the country feels a greater freedom to be politically incorrect. So suddenly those two things are walking closer and closer to each other.
Is there a most important lesson to be learned from Derek’s story?
It’s hard to boil it down to a lesson.
I was talking about this with Derek yesterday. My hope is that people read the book and find that there’s hope in it, but if it feels just purely like a hopeful book then that’s not what I intended. Because one of the things I learned in writing the book is that the darkness of this ideology is real, and the power of it is real.
For Derek, in this one way, he’s fascinatingly consistent: He’s always believed that the United States leans towards white supremacy and that’s a huge and dark force at the center of what a lot of the country is—
He still believes that?
He still believes that. When he was a white nationalist, that was like the great opportunity of When things get polarizing of course America will break down by race and white people will automatically assume the country is theirs. He still believes that just as firmly, but now he thinks it’s the foundational flaw of the country.
It’s something we have to be courageous enough to stare into and think about and try to figure out how to unravel.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky