“A Hard Decision He’s Always Trying to Make”
Eli Saslow Charts the Transformation of Derek Black
Eli Saslow’s new book, Rising Out of Hatred, explores the transformation of Derek Black from a virulent White Supremacist to a man who speaks out against the ideology. Derek is the son of Don Black, former Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK and founder of Stormfront, once the most popular Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist website in the world. He’s the godson of David Duke, another former Grand Imperial Wizard, and a fixture on the White Nationalist scene for forty years. Derek was home-schooled, raised in White Supremacy, and became a young fixture in the movement. Like a child evangelist, he preached the evils of white genocide, the scientific supremacy of the white race, and the oppression of white people by minorities, from a young age to cheering crowds.
When Derek went away to New College of Florida, he continued to call in to The Don and Derek Black Show, the two hour daily radio program he’d started with his father. He led a double life, as a student of history at New College and a White Supremacist on the internet and on radio. The two parts never met until he was outed on a college message board.
The students and administration at New College were forced to consider how to interact with a student actively espousing racist ideology. Different people chose differing strategies. Many snubbed Derek, or actively confronted him. One of only two Jewish students on campus, Matthew Stevenson, invited him to Shabbat dinner one Friday, and Derek began to show up each week.
Rising Out of Hatred is Eli Saslow’s clear-eyed and humane account of a man questioning everything he’s ever been taught, knowing that the questioning itself could destroy his life. The book details the impossible task of examining an ideology when your entire existence, and everyone you know, is bound to it. It tells both sides of the story, the friends and family betrayed by Derek’s renunciation of White Supremacy, and the people intimately involved in Derek’s life who made that renunciation possible, especially Allison who slowly becomes a friend, then a lover, and the catalyst for Derek’s soul searching.
Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post, who writes more like a novelist than a journalist. He has a deep insight into the people he covers, bringing empathy to the story while presenting an honest, sometimes unflattering, picture. There’s a lot of time to cover here, a number of viewpoints, and a large cast to juggle over the course of this narrative and Saslow accomplishes it expertly, balancing fact and history with the very real questions and moral anguish people may wrestle with on a daily basis.
When did you first meet Derek Black? How did that conversation begin?
It began very slowly. I was writing about Dylann Roof for The Post. He’d spent a bunch of time on Stormfront. I knew of Stormfront, but I didn’t know a lot about it. I went on and of course, there were a lot of people talking about Dylann Roof and, in some cases, celebrating what he’d done. But the most popular thread on Stormfront, now almost two years old, was about Derek’s story and the break he’d had with his family. I knew I’d really want to write about this.
Derek had made himself really difficult to find. He’d changed his name and moved across the country, erased himself from databases, so it took a few weeks to find him. When I did, he was in a Graduate Program in Michigan. He didn’t want to talk to me, or anyone, about the past.
We stayed in touch by email. During the course of that year, White Nationalism was impossible to ignore, and he began to see the full power of the rhetoric he’d tried to popularize with his radio show. He began to feel a serious sense of alarm about what was happening in the country and in some ways, he felt culpable. He felt a responsibility to tell his story when he had a perspective a lot of people didn’t.
Derek understands very well the historical power of White Supremacy in the U.S. and the fact that White Nationalism is not some fringe ideology but one of the central ways in which the country was set up. When he was a White Nationalist that was a great comfort to him, the faith that the country would return to these white, European defaults. Now, he just thinks it’s America’s foundational flaw.
I wrote a story for The Post, but it seemed too condensed. Some of the people involved weren’t quite ready to talk yet. It seemed like it needed to be a longer piece. That’s why I wanted to do the book. It’s just more real in how a big transformation happens; this tortured, piece-by-piece change over a period of time.
Derek was really rethinking everything he ever believed about anything over the course of two or two and a half years and considering blowing up every fundamental relationship he’d had over the course of his life.
You convinced Derek to talk to you for the story. Did you have to go back and convince him again to do the book?
It was much easier. By then, I’d spent a lot of time with him. I’d made three trips and we’d spent days together. Reporting-trust always builds over time.
The first day I spent with Derek, he’d driven two hours to meet me in another city because he didn’t want me to know where he lived. He used code words for other people because he didn’t want to reveal names.
He’d read the kinds of things I write. We talked a lot about the process and how, to do the story right, it needed to be done fully. By the time the story ran, he understood my process.
Also, I think the reaction to the story took him by surprise. Quite reasonably, everything he’d ever done publicly in his life had been responded to with extreme outrage and horror. I think he was almost unnerved that people thought, there’s some hopefulness in this. That there was some courage in his renunciation. He’d never really thought about it that way. He’s felt such guilt and shame over his past actions that he wasn’t ready for people to see some small heroism in his story.
Finally, I think he began to see working on this as way of beginning to unify these two parts of his life into something coherent. He was still running at that point and it was a fragmenting, exhausting way to live.
I imagine there were people involved who did not want to talk with you? How did that conversation go?
Actually, there were very few people who did not want to talk. They were all concerned about talking, though. For Allison, she really worried that she would be perceived as naïve. She felt conflicted in some ways about her actions with Derek. I think she sometimes feels a little bit unsure about whether she did exactly the right thing.
A lot of the other people on campus who interacted with Derek didn’t want to participate in something that was just going to be a simple redemptive story. It took some time to build up trust with some of them. That always happens one conversation at a time. Eventually, the fact that you’re not out to get anybody spreads in the community.
The White Nationalist side of things was more difficult. I knew I needed Don’s participation. He’s too big a part of the story and, without understanding the depth of the relationship between Derek and Don, it would be very difficult for a reader to understand how hard it was for Derek to change.
Don and Derek have a really difficult time relating and communicating now, so I think Don thought talking about Derek for the book was a way of facilitating a conversation they weren’t otherwise having. And he wanted to tell his side of the story. Once Don was participating, other White Nationalists followed his lead.
Not only did I have access to all the main people involved but I also had access to huge archival information. Don and Derek were on the radio together for two hours every day and all of those archives were there. The New College forum was archived. Allison sent me all 6000 pages of chat she and Derek had had through college.
Allison is the pivotal character here. Without her, it seems, Derek might have changed his views more slowly and might never have spoken out. What do you think kept her engaged, and so doggedly persistent, with Derek?
She’s an incredible communicator. In the emails she and Derek sent back and forth in college, she found ways to hold him accountable for all these horrific things he’d said but still managed to be compassionate. She found ways to argue with him using data driven info he could respond to.
She enrolled in specific classes in college so that she could learn more about prejudice, so she could weaponize herself for those conversations with Derek while still managing to not destroy what was first a friendship, then a relationship.
There were parts of her role I didn’t know about at first, that she’d gone undercover with Derek to a White Nationalist conference. She took huge risks and I think that’s probably why she continues to feel a little conflicted. She looks back and thinks, This was a huge high wire act and just because it paid off doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Her answer on that is not clear.
Do you think Derek was a mission for her?
I think he was an incredible curiosity. She’d known Derek for more than a year before she even began warming up to him. By the time she started talking with him about White Nationalism, she had an instinctual sense that something didn’t fit.
He’s kind and open minded and hanging out with these diverse groups of people. She wanted to make sense of it and she felt empowered in those conversations because of her own privilege.
I was also really interested in the strategies other people had. Some befriended Derek and never talked about this stuff. Matthew, a close friend who is Jewish, never talked to him about it. He wanted to invite him to Shabbat dinner, humanize himself, so Derek understood that when he thought about Jews, he was thinking about Matthew.
Allison was much more direct, more: Hey, why do you think this? Explain it to me.
My sense in reading the book was that all those things worked together on Derek. It was the combination of strategies.
Absolutely. I think we’re at this moment culturally where we believe there’s a binary choice between civil resistance or civil discourse. In Derek’s case, both of those things were absolutely necessary. If he’d never been outed as a White Nationalist on campus, if he’d never been made to see the full horror of his beliefs, he never would have really understood how horrible the things were that he was saying.
On campus, there was a huge debate between ostracizing him or reaching out to him for dialogue, both of those sides were useful.
Things happen in the news while Derek is re-assessing his position as a White Supremacist: the Trayvon Martin case, the Dylann Roof church shooting. These occur almost simultaneously with the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure and the language of White Supremacy entering the political mainstream. Derek was out of his bubble by then. What was the initial reaction of Derek, and of the White Supremacist movement, to the rhetoric and language of the Trump campaign?
Derek was horrified, but I don’t think he was particularly surprised. He didn’t think Trump was a White Nationalist, and neither do White Supremacists. What he thought was that parts of Trump’s campaign had mastered the power of America’s racial history in the way Derek had always aspired to do when he was recruiting White Nationalists.
He’d go to Alan Jackson concerts and hand out these White Nationalist country music CDs where the message was, Your heritage is most important, restore America to what it was, immigration is problematic.
Many of those talking points were echoed in Make America Great Again. I think as soon as Derek saw the Trump Campaign making that appeal, he recognized it has more power than people understand. I think that’s part of what made him fearful and made him decide to tell his story.
On the White Nationalist side, it was very empowering and extraordinarily surprising. For forty years, they have always been outside the political establishment. They were the extreme no politician would go to. It was shocking to them, and they began to believe they could become a viable political force.
How do they feel now? We’re a year and a half into Trump’s term and we just passed the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville. Not many White Supremacists showed up.
I think what they’ve realized is that so many parts of America are, unfortunately, so rich in white grievance that they see their concerns reflected in the country. Most White Supremacists that are politically active, like Don, were dissuading people from going to the march in D.C. They think, Why should we be poisoning the well, in a place like Charlottesville or D.C., when things are beginning to move in our direction. There are forces much closer to the mainstream putting these ideas and policies in place for them. They believe it’s a time for them to work quietly behind the scenes.
Don is such a complicated character in the book. I don’t want there to be any redemption for Don in the book. He doesn’t ask for redemption.
The fact that these things are coming into the political mainstream reinforces for Don this sense of loss, because he always felt Derek could be at the forefront of this kind of movement if he’d just stayed with it.
In the end, after Derek walks away from the movement, what Don does is court a relationship with Richard Spencer. It says everything that needs to be said about Don. At the same time, he loves his kid.
One of the things that comes across is that Derek had a very loving family. The other thing I realized after finishing the book was that Derek, when he was a White Nationalist, would never say he hated anyone, and he’d be right.
That’s right. Now, in retrospect, he understands that hatred was the underpinning of his ideology, but Derek tried so hard to rationalize that his ideology was based on science, fact, and what was somehow better for the long -term future of the race. He tried not to make the ideas about hate.
I think one of the other things that’s confusing to Derek about his own upbringing is that many of the qualities that his parents instilled in him—incredible curiosity, thirst for knowledge, the ability to think outside the box and question what he was told—those qualities helped him find his way out of the ideology.
Can we switch gears a little and talk about trust? One of the things I come away with in all your work, this book and the newspapers stories, is how much the people you write about trust you, and how deeply you can get into them based on that trust. How do you build that trust with someone you are talking to for a story?
I think trust begins, for me, with really genuine curiosity. As a reporter, if you’re faking curiosity or having to work it up, people can read that pretty quickly. So, I try to pick story ideas, or parts of stories, that I feel genuinely curious about.
Then, I try to immerse myself in that curiosity and the people I’m writing about. Sometimes it’s simple, small things like leaving the cell phone in the car so I’m not tempted to glance at it and give the impression that the person that I’m with is less important than something on the phone. We go to the kind of restaurants they want to go to. If they buy ice cream, I order chocolate.
It’s also important to be fully transparent about process when people want to know about it. So, in Derek and Allison’s case, I tell them why I think all these emails are really important. You don’t forgive their flaws or make them look better than they really are. You have to be honest to the story. I try to have the process be part of the conversation, so that the reporting doesn’t feel like something that’s being done to them.
You know, the foundational piece of trust in any relationship is just time. It’s being willing to go back again and again and again, to spend a lot of time with people that’s not necessarily going to show up in whatever you’re reporting. There were days and days I spent with Derek and Allison where nothing from those days came into the book, but it was time well spent. It’s about trying to build relationships that aren’t strictly transactional.
The more difficult part of trust for me in these reporting relationships is on the back end. If I’m writing 8 or 10 of these stories a year and building those relationships with people, they don’t necessarily end there. If I’ve been asking to hear everything about someone’s heroin addiction for two weeks, it’s not really fair to them to stop wanting to hear about that when the reporting is over. At the same time, it’s a complicated thing to maintain that kind of relationship with everybody.
There was recent controversy when National Public Radio gave a prominent White Nationalist air time to talk about his beliefs. How do you find the line between covering these kinds of stories and allowing these organizations to co-opt the media?
It’s a question I thought a lot about. There was another story a couple of months ago in the New York Times that got a lot of blowback, and I thought deservedly so, about a White Nationalist in Ohio and the point of the story seemed to be White Nationalists are everywhere, It’s normal now. It was a profile, not challenging anything about the ideology, sort of saying, White Nationalists go to Applebee’s too.
Providing a forum for these views without challenging them in any way is really problematic. It’s a trap that the media falls into a lot. But, we’ve seen a change just in the last year in that the media is more willing to call something a lie, rather than just reporting what people are saying, and I think that’s a good thing.
In the case of the book, I knew in the end it wasn’t a story about a White Nationalist, it’s a story about someone finding his way out of the ideology by uncovering all the flaws. It’s about how White Nationalism is based on bunk science, how race is a social construct that’s fluid through time. I didn’t have to challenge the ideology in the book, because the whole book is about people doing that.
On the other hand, the media can’t make the mistake of just ignoring it and deciding not to cover these things. Many parts of this ideology are a real and forceful thing now in American politics. It would be irresponsible not to write about them.
Do you worry personally about covering such emotionally charged issues when the President himself designates the press as ‘the enemy of the people’?
Yeah, I do. Maybe not as much as I should, probably. I have the ability, for better or worse, to get so lost in the story I’m writing at the moment that my own concerns feel a little bit secondary. And, I’ve never had anything really scary happen.
Certainly, there were times in writing this book where people were pointedly curious about whether I was Jewish, if my family was Jewish, what per cent Jewish was I, and there certainly were moments of real unpleasantness.
But really, the humanity of people reading something, especially when it really hits them—what stories mean to people in positive ways—always offsets whatever small negative stuff might come back to me.
Is Derek going to do any publicity around the book with you?
Yes, he will. He and Allison are going to come to New York for a couple of days. They’re both still feeling it out. Derek will do more, I’m sure.
Derek has this hard decision he’s always trying to make. He has his work and his life, then he has his past.
He’s studying Islamic culture during the Middle Ages and helping medievalists reimagine how we think about that history, which is really important and something he’s very invested in. At the same time, he realizes the importance of what he knows about White Nationalism at this moment and his personal narrative has real power to do good in the world. I think it’s a hard tension for him, wanting to balance both of those things.
He’s very thoughtful about it. He just tries to think it through, case by case.
Does being a part of this book, writing the op-eds for the New York Times, ease anything in Derek in relation to his past?
I think it does. He still has so much guilt.
Before the book was going into galleys, I wanted he and Allison to know about it from me first. I went to see them for a weekend in Michigan. I just read portions of the book aloud to them, so they would know what to expect.
The pain for him, when I read back old quotes, is profound and the guilt is not something that any amount of Times op-eds is going to erase. It’s a hard realization. He did damage. He did real damage. I think he wonders how many of the people who went to Charlottesville last year came into White Nationalism because they listened to him on the radio.
I know that’s a driving force for him, wanting to be a part of counteracting what’s happening.