When R. Derek Black walked onto Sarasota’s New College of Florida campus in 2010, with his long red hair and black cowboy hat, he seemed like just one more of the college’s 850 quirky-looking, cerebral students. But Black could not have been more out of place. A transfer student at the famously liberal college, Black represented everything most New College students and staff abhorred. At 21, he was a rising star in the white nationalist movement, the creator of a racist website for children and co-host of a national radio program aimed at fomenting hatred against blacks, Jews and other minority groups.
His lineage in the movement was unimpeachable. Black is the son of Don Black, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the founder of the first and largest neo-Nazi website, Stormfront. R. Derek Black is also the godson of notorious white separatist David Duke, another former KKK Grand Wizard and a former Republican Louisiana state representative, who twice ran for president. Duke was once married to Black’s mother, Chloe Hardin Black.
But by the time he graduated from New College in 2013, Black had renounced his former beliefs and become an enemy to the movement and an outcast to his family. A new book, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, by Eli Saslow, tells the remarkable story of how New College students came together to transform Black’s values and life.
In his three years at New College, Black went from being the “leading light” of white nationalism “to somebody who was willing to lose everything to break away from it,” Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post reporter, told us in a recent interview.
Saslow heard about Black when he was working on a story about Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Roof had spent a lot of time on Stormfront. When Saslow visited the site, he read post after post celebrating Roof. But the biggest thread on the site was about Black, who was denounced as a traitor to the movement. Saslow learned that Black had written a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) renouncing his past and had disappeared. That’s all he knew, but the story kept haunting him. “What happened in those three years to have this person transform?” he kept asking himself.
Eventually, Saslow tracked down Black, and for a year they emailed and talked until Black was ready to tell his story, which first appeared in the Washington Post in October 2016. Saslow’s book was released this September. In October, a South Florida white nationalist mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to critics of President Donald Trump, including prominent Democrats and CNN. Days later, a white supremacist angry about a caravan of Central American immigrants heading to the U.S. border burst into a Pittsburgh synagogue, murdering 11 Jews. That same week, another white supremacist walked into a Kentucky grocery store and fatally shot two African-Americans he selected at random.
The week before, President Trump proclaimed at a political rally, “I am a nationalist,” a word associated with the alt-right movement, while the crowd roared, “Use that word.” In November, the FBI reported that hate crimes in the United States increased 17 percent between 2016 and 2017.
“I felt like this book would be relevant when I was writing it,” Saslow says. But even he is shocked by how timely it has become. “White nationalist ideas form so much of what’s happening in our country now,” he says.
Black, who has been watching these events with alarm, says the goals of white nationalists are being realized. “We haven’t had politicians who have been quite so explicit about fighting for the interests of white people as a demographic in decades,” he says.
Rising Out of Hatred illuminates the progression of white nationalism in the United States from an isolated fringe group to a movement that’s become more mainstream—and more frightening. But the book is mainly about personal change and hope. If someone as extreme as Black can change, can others walk away from hate and racism as well? Exactly what happened to Black at New College?
The public honors college of the state of Florida, New College scores high on national rankings such as The Princeton Review, U.S. News and World Report and Forbes for its rigorous academics and well-regarded professors. It’s also been described as LGBTQ-friendly and one of the top colleges that “changes lives.” College officials describe the students as “self-motivated” and the learning as “self-directed.” It would be an understatement to say the politics lean left. The school prides itself on multicultural values, a global worldview and critical thinking. There are no grades, no fraternities or sororities, no organized sports.
There is, however, a passion for social issues, which plays out in heated discussions on a campus email group called the forum. “Forum wars,” one current student calls them. Saslow, who poured through forum posts for his story, was impressed with the level of dialogue. “If this story had been taking place at my alma mater, [the conversations] would have been about which bars were open at 2 a.m.,” he says. “At New College, there was this incredibly informed debate about social justice and upholding the best of humanity.
Black and his family knew about New College’s liberal reputation, but they weren’t worried. The day before he left for New College, Black and his father were doing their radio show. A listener asked if the young Black was afraid of going to this “hotbed of multiculturalism,” says Saslow. Black’s father replied that if anyone thought his son could be changed, they didn’t know Derek. If anything, Saslow says, Don Black declared his son would change those “little commies.” For the Blacks, New College was a good school, affordable and would give Black the credentials he needed.
Interviewed by phone from a Chicago coffee shop, Black, now a 29-year-old Ph.D. student of medieval history at the University of Chicago, speaks quietly, with frequent stops and starts, searching for the exact words to describe his implausible odyssey. “I wanted to be somebody who was morally right and factually correct in my beliefs,” he told us about growing up in a family that had spent decades building white nationalism. “I believed we weren’t causing people harm.”
Black was immersed in the movement as a child. By the time he was 10, he’d created a Stormfront website for children that grew to attract 1 million visitors. Homeschooled, he had little interaction with anyone outside the movement. The kids he knew were the children of white nationalists, and he was accustomed to attending white nationalist conferences, where, he says, “highly educated middle class and upper middle class people get up on the podium and justify the belief system” and provide evidence of the inferiority of other racial groups. Jews were enemy No. 1.
White nationalists warn that Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community and non-Christians will soon outnumber Christian whites, destroying American culture and the nation. Black absorbed the message that the movement had to expand beyond hardcore believers to stop the country’s march towards nonwhite rule. He helped create and popularize the term “white genocide,” and he learned how to convince white people outside the movement that they were the victims of discrimination and needed to take their country back. When he was 19, he ran for a seat on the West Palm Beach Republican Party as a committeeman and won. (The party, however, refused to seat him.) Black’s insistence that white nationalism could only survive if it sanitized its image caught on, positioning him as a future leader in the movement.
At New College, Black planned to study medieval history, a popular subject among white nationalists, who believe that this historical period proves European superiority. But he intended to keep his family history and white nationalist views under wraps. He’d make sure he was out of earshot of other students when he phoned into the radio program he and his father continued to host on weekday mornings.
The first thing that challenged Black at New College was the diversity. After living in the insular world of white nationalism, he was programmed to despise minority groups, but from his first day, he found himself meeting—and liking—people of different colors and faiths. He became close to Juan Elias, a Peruvian immigrant, and to two Jewish students, Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, and Moshe Ash, whom he later discovered is a Hungarian Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And he met a young woman, Rose, who became his girlfriend—and turned out to be Jewish. Increasingly stressed by his double life, he nevertheless held back from telling his new friends about his background and beliefs.
Then, during his second semester, while he was studying in Germany, Black was outed. Tom McKay, a senior studying the far right for his thesis, heard that a white nationalist named Derek Black was on campus. It was easy to track Black down, but then McKay wasn’t sure what to do. He decided to post links to Black’s history on the forum—a place Saslow described in his book as the “social epicenter” of New College student culture.
“How do we as a community respond to this?” he wrote. Hundreds of email responses flooded the forum.
“It was 100 percent saturation,” says McKay, now a journalist with Gizmodo.com. “The vast majority responded, ‘What the hell? Why is this kid here? This is gross and sick.’ A small minority of defenders, some who knew him, thought it was an invasion of his privacy. And a few people said, ‘Let’s talk to him.’”
Michael Long, who was New College’s student body president that year, remembers how alarmed and split students were. “Do we exile or do we seek to understand? Both approaches had merit,” says Long.
Many students called for Black’s expulsion, and his presence motivated students to shut down the campus for a day of protest and a teach-in as well as bring in a speaker from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Black says it wasn’t the first time he’s confronted condemnation. He’d been receiving thousands of hate emails from people he didn’t know from the time he was a kid, and he’d been able to shrug them off. But now, smart students, many of whom he knew, were calling him an “idiot,” “a fraud” and “Hitler,” Saslow reports in his book. Rose stopped all communication.
“The New College student body was so firm in their denunciation of my belief system,” Black says. “That was different from the anonymous emails because these were people I’d gotten to know.” Their criticism hurt—and he couldn’t dismiss it.
While most students shunned Black, Stevenson took another approach, deciding that rejecting Black would only ensure he’d cling to his white nationalism credo. His goal, he told Saslow in an interview for the book, “was to make Jews more human to him.” Every Friday, Stevenson invited Black, Ash, Elias and other friends to his dorm room for Shabbat services, sharing prayers, kosher food and conversation, and avoiding talk about politics or Black’s views.
That decision came at some cost. For many New College students, “simply associating with Derek was viewed as an act of treason,” says Long. “These friends put themselves out there to be publicly shamed and attacked.”
Although the idea of attending Shabbat once would have been inconceivable to Black, the ostracism he was experiencing made him appreciate the invitations, and he came to enjoy the company.
Allison Gornick, Stevenson’s roommate, at first refused to be in the same room with Black. But after finding herself stuck with him one day on Long’s sailboat, she was surprised. He didn’t seem to be filled with hate, she thought. He seemed thoughtful and kind. And Black was fun. He played guitar, enjoyed Contra dancing, kayaked in the bay and explored Sarasota. Gornick and Black forged a friendship through these activities before she approached the subject of Black’s white nationalist views. Finally, on a dorm rooftop, she asked Black to explain.
In the two years that followed, Gornick challenged Black’s views about white oppression. She sent him academic studies that refuted his beliefs about racial differences in IQ scores and crime as well as white genocide, and he began to rethink his positions. “I had to ask myself, ‘Why did these people I feel connected to feel so strongly that my beliefs were wrong and hurting them?’” he recalls.
The two began dating, and as Black’s views changed, Gornick asked him how he could call himself a white nationalist when he didn’t hold their beliefs anymore. Eventually, Gornick told Black it wasn’t enough to privately disavow the movement. He’d done too much damage. He had to take a public stand.
In 2013, Black’s last year at New College, he sent a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, disavowing white nationalism.
“I do not believe advocacy against ‘oppression of whites’ exists in any form but an entrenched desire to preserve white power at the expense of others,” he wrote. “I am sorry for the damage done by my actions and my past endorsement of white nationalism.”
After his letter was published on the SPLC site, Black was banished from his family home. Today, he and his parents stay in touch and he occasionally visits, but relations are “tense,” he says. He assumes every time he speaks out that his family is hurt and angry. Black changed his name to Roland Derek Black (Roland was his middle name), and left Florida, thinking he could start over.
But national events thrust him back in the spotlight. During the 2016 presidential campaign, immigration, refugees, Black Lives Matter and other white nationalist talking points were making headlines. Saslow had found Black by that time, but Black told him he just wanted to be left alone.
“What compelled him to change his mind and talk to me didn’t have very much to do with me,” Saslow says. “I think he felt it was a moment where staying silent was a choice. It was being complicit, and he needed to speak up and tell his story.”
Today Black says it’s “terrifying” to think about the impact his ideas continue to have, even though he’s no longer promoting them.
“Other people continue to promote them. You can’t take things back,” he says, citing the murders at the Pittsburgh synagogue. He says he lives with his past by speaking out. “If I keep advocating for protection of vulnerable people and pushing against people who have opposing views, then in that way I can keep moving forward,” he says.
And despite his upbringing in the closed system of white nationalism, he refuses to absolve himself of responsibility.
“A lot of kids grow up in the movement. Most do not become activists,” he says. “I was so committed that I talked to the media from the time I was a kid. I built a website, a radio show, tried to engage with people, tried to figure out talking points and organize training seminars, things that had real impact.”
Since the book was published, Black has been interviewed by national media, including with Saslow on NPR’s Fresh Air and on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Every time he speaks, he creates more distance from his family. He is still in a relationship with Gornick, who is finishing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. The two recently visited a predominantly black and Hispanic school in New York to talk about their experiences. Last summer he worked as a consultant for Facebook to look at how and why groups reject one another and ways to create contact between members of opposing groups to lessen their prejudice.
He says his own transformation is making him look at medieval history through a different lens. “I’m trying to do a dissertation on medieval ideas on ethnicity and religion and race and how those ideas got transported into the colonial world,” he says.
Those ideas, he says, are becoming more rather than less pervasive. “White supremacists are fighting for the interests of white people as a demographic,” he says. And although their talking points, such as claiming that whites face more discrimination than minority groups, are easily disproved, they are now being voiced by some mainstream politicians, he says.
Spreading white nationalist ideology isn’t as hard as people think, he says. The extremist movement exists because of mainstream tolerance, he argues. Americans tend to see racism and hate as something that looks like the group of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville or the man shooting people in the synagogue, something they would never condone, Black says. But racism and protecting white privilege are part of America’s history and culture, he says, and white nationalists have succeeded in bringing those feelings to the surface and normalizing them.
“[White nationalists try] to convince regular people to feel more extreme,” he says. The way to counter that, he’s come to believe, is to speak to “the more persuadable” people all around us rather than the extremists, engaging with those people the way his New College friends engaged with him, offering facts, evidence—and friendship.
“If you do the work of trying to get people to think more critically, you end up starving the [white nationalist] movement,” he says.
Transformation can occur in many ways, but for Black, New College was a living lesson in the persuasive power of critical thinking, and the perfect petri dish for change. Small, socially aware and committed to rational thought, the school encourages students to confront and engage with each other.
And Saslow points out that Black had the ability to grow and change. “He’s incredibly smart, smart enough to find his way out,” says Saslow.
“If I’d gone to the University of Florida, I don’t think it would have played out the same,” says Black. “The [UF] community would not have condemned me like that. There would have been maybe a sporadic protest, but I would have found spaces where I didn’t feel as challenged. I guess that’s the point. Engaging is the answer. There’s a thousand ways to do it, and New College did something.”