As the son of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Derek Black was once the heir apparent of the white nationalist movement.
Growing up, he made speeches, hosted a radio show and started the website KidsStormfront — which acted as a companion to Stormfront, the white nationalist website his father, Don Black, created.
"The fundamental belief that drove my dad, drove my parents and my family, over decades, was that race was the defining feature of humanity ... and that people were only happy if they could live in a society that was only this one biologically defined racial group," Black says.
It was only after he began attending New College of Florida that Black began to question his own point of view. Previously, he had been home-schooled, but suddenly he was was exposed to people who didn't share his views, including a few Jewish students who became friends.
Black's new friends invited him over for Shabbat dinner week after week. Gradually, he began to rethink his views. After much soul-searching, a 22-year-old Black wrote an article, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2013, renouncing white nationalism.
Derek Black's "awakening" is the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow's new book, Rising Out Of Hatred. Saslow also interviewed Black's father and other leaders in the white nationalist movement.
On the "rebranding" of white supremacy, led in part by Derek's father, Don Black
Derek Black: My dad popularized the term "white nationalism" ... when he founded Stormfront and called it a white nationalist community, and he saw the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy as being one that he didn't want anything bad for anyone else — he just wanted everybody to be forcibly put in different spaces, and that that was not about superiority, it was just about the well-being of everybody. ... Looking back on it, that is totally irrational. How exactly do you think you're going to forcibly separate everybody and that that's not supremacy?
Eli Saslow: They believed America was founded as a white supremacist country. ... Their job was just to give people a space to say racist ideas in a more explicit, proud, confident way. ...
White nationalism, I think, effectively identifies a movement of people who are actively pursuing an end cause of separating races into different homelands. White supremacy, unfortunately, is something that's much more endemic, and much more structured into what the country is.
On Black's usage of white nationalist talking points in a campaign for the West Palm Beach County Republican Committee
Black: I knew from the time that I was a child that white nationalism, as long as it was not necessarily calling itself white nationalism, could win campaigns. So I did things like run little Republican county elections [to] demonstrate that I could win with the majority of the vote [using] white nationalist talking points in a very normal South Florida neighborhood.
I ran training sessions on how people could hone their message to try to get that audience, not freak people out and just tap into things like, "Don't you think all these Spanish signs on the highway are making everything worse? And don't you think political correctness is just not letting you talk about things that are real?" And getting people to agree on that would be the way forward.
On how President Obama's election motivated white nationalists
Saslow: I think a lot of white nationalists saw President Obama's election as a huge opportunity for their movement. Because what white nationalists have done, with dangerous effect, is play to this factually incorrect sense of grievance that exists, unfortunately, in large parts of white America.
Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. ... By feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of your country is being taken away, [that] things are changing ... it's what got Derek elected [he was unable to serve in office], and it's what has gotten other politicians elected in our country as well.
On the responsibility Black feels for racially motivated violence that was inspired by the white nationalist beliefs he once espoused
Black: I spent so many years rationalizing that that was not us. We were not responsible for that. We were not advocating violence, so therefore when people committed violent acts who had all the same beliefs as us, that that was not us. That was the media portraying us in a way that attracted psychopaths, and that we were somehow not responsible for that because it was not clear how to tangibly connect what I was saying and what I was promoting to the actions that those people took.
And now I look back on it and I said things that tried to energize racist ideas and get people to be more explicit about it. And then people who listened to that and who believed it, some of them committed horrible, violent acts. And what is my culpability and responsibility for how these things went out into the world and they continue to bounce around in the world, and I can't take them back? That is a moral weight that is very difficult to reconcile.
On how the actions of various students Black met at college helped him move away from his white nationalist beliefs
Saslow: In addition to being the story of Derek's transformation, the book is also the story of the real courage shown by a lot of students on this campus who invested themselves in trying to affect profound change. And they did that in a lot of different ways. There was civil resistance on campus by a group of students who organized the school shutdown, and shut down the school, and sort of cast Derek out, and made it clear to him how awful, and how hateful, and how hurtful this ideology was.
And it was also students like Allison, eventually his girlfriend, who won his trust, built a relationship, but [who] also armored herself with the facts, and sort of like point by point went through and showed how this ideology is built on total misinformation.
And then there were also [Jewish] students like Matthew [Stevenson] and Moshe [Ash] who, in a remarkable act, invited Derek over week after week after week, not to build the case against him but to build their relationship, hoping that just by spending more and more time with them he would be able to begin seeing past the stereotypes to the people and to the humanity. ... I think it's important to note that that did not happen quickly, and that they knew the full horror of a lot of the beliefs of this ideology and the things that Derek had said.
Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Derek Black, is a former leader of the white nationalist movement, a movement that emerged rebranded from white supremacy. Derek was raised in the movement. His father, Don Black, is a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and created the Internet's largest white nationalist site, Stormfront.
When Derek was in his teens, he started the companion website Kids' Stormfront. Derek made speeches, hosted a radio show and was considered the movement's heir apparent. After spending the first 22 years of his life in the movement, he left in 2013 and renounced his former views. His life and why he left the movement he helped lead is the subject of the new book "Rising Out Of Hatred" by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who is also with us. The book is based on Saslow's many interviews with Derek as well as interviews with Derek's father, Derek's godfather, David Duke, Richard Spencer and other white nationalists and students who went to college with Derek.
Derek Black, Eli Saslow, welcome to FRESH AIR. Eli, I want to start with you. I want you to place in context Derek Black's and Don Black's place in the white supremacy, white nationalist movement.
ELI SASLOW: Derek's father, Don Black, was the head of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States for seven or eight years in the 1980s and very close friends with David Duke. They worked together to sort of lead this movement. And Don Black, Derek's father, took a hard turn toward going online and built a website called Stormfront, which for 20 years, continuing up into the present, sort of was the largest hate website in the world. And, you know, it's a racist website that attracts a large following - several hundred thousand active e-users.
And Derek was born and raised in West Palm Beach, Fla., but really spent a lot of his time on this website with his father and David Duke, who was his godfather, going to white nationalist conferences around the South and spreading sort of the - I think what they would consider the more academic views of this movement, going around and trying to over time sanitize the movement from its history of violence and talking more about the ways in which whites are prejudiced against, turning the language from a language of oppression toward others and framing it more as a language of white grievance, which over time had a really powerful and disastrous effect.
GROSS: So, Derek, what were some of the core beliefs you grew up with that explained and bolstered the white nationalist point of view? And what was the, quote, "science," behind those beliefs?
DEREK BLACK: Yeah. The fundamental belief that drove my dad, drove my parents and my family over decades was that race was the defining feature of humanity, that that was something that was overarching and predicted behavior in large groups and that it was the thing that explained why Europeans had colonized so much of the world and that beyond being this great predictor, it was something that defined how people would be most happy, and that they were only happy if they could live in a society that was only this one biologically defined racial group, and that all of society was just lying to themselves about the fact that there were all these major racial differences that could be proved through demonstrated IQ score differences or criminality, and that that was all predicted by race, and that whenever anyone denied that, it wasn't because they were looking at facts. It was just because they wanted to believe in a totally equal society. And that - unfortunately that they were just lying to themselves about that.
GROSS: So you were part of the rebranding process from white supremacy to white nationalism, white supremacy meaning white people are better than. White nationalism kind of toned it down to - it's like, it's not that we're better than, but we're all better off being separated by race. It's like it's...
BLACK: Yeah. My dad popularized...
GROSS: ...Good for everyone.
BLACK: ...The term white nationalism.
GROSS: And so that was his thing.
BLACK: Yeah. He didn't invent it, but he was for it. He was the main group that really popularized it and one of the earliest ones to adopt it. And when he founded Stormfront, he called it a white nationalist community. And he saw the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy as being one that he didn't want anything bad for anyone else. He just wanted everybody to be forcibly put in different spaces and that that was not about superiority. It was just about the well-being of everybody. And that that's - that was what he thought was the difference there. And, you know, looking back on it, that is - it's totally irrational. Like, how exactly do you think you're going to forcibly separate everybody and that that's not supremacy?
GROSS: Can I just interrupt for a second? I've always wanted to know. The early people who rebranded white supremacy to white nationalism - whether they saw that as, like, a smart move to help mainstream the movement and make it more palatable or whether they really believed that there was a difference between white supremacy and white nationalism.
BLACK: They really did believe they were not doing bad things to other people, that the accusations of violence and hatred and racism were just insults put towards them and that they really did just want what's best for white people and then, by extension, other people. And it may be unpleasant to do that, but really, in the long run, everything's going to be much better. The answer for what they thought rebranding it would do was that they believed America was founded as a white supremacist country and that that was not gone, that the civil rights movement had changed the language and it made it much more difficult to speak about race. And their job was just to give people a space to say racist ideas in a more explicit, proud, confident way.
GROSS: The assumption was that everybody is basically - all white people are basically racist. They're just afraid to express it. So let's give them a language and a safe space.
BLACK: So they don't like the word racist. They think that's a made-up insult word.
GROSS: What's the cleansed word?
SASLOW: ...Was something that they used for a while.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Subtle.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
SASLOW: And over the years, if you look at the language in terms of how many people in this movement have identified themselves, it went from the KKK to white supremacist to white power to white pride to white nationalist, and so every time becoming a little bit more subtle and a little bit more pernicious. I think that the thing that's complicated now when we talk about white nationalist versus white supremacy is that white nationalism I think effectively identifies a movement of people who are actively pursuing an end cause of separating, you know, races into different homelands.
And white supremacy, unfortunately, is something that's much more endemic and much more structured into what the country is. So if we're talking about these people as white supremacists, it doesn't quite distinguish the movement in the same way because much of the country was founded on things that are white supremacist, and many of our structures, you know, are based on white supremacy. So that's the distinction sometimes in the language that I think is still effective and useful for us as we talk about it.
GROSS: So the white nationalist movement has an end goal, which is to separate the races for the good of everybody. And your father actually tried to enact that goal by trying to plan an overthrow of the government and of the people of a small Caribbean island, Dominica, to create, like, a white utopia there. He and some, you know, white nationalist buddies were armed. They were in their car, like, with ammunition driving to the ship when they were stopped by law enforcement agents. And your father spent three years in prison. So he - I mean, he really deeply bought the idea that you could create this, like, white nationalist utopia.
BLACK: Yeah. Yeah. He - from the time he was a teenager. He was raised in civil rights era Alabama, and everybody around him had sort of normal, casual Southern racist ideas about segregation. And what distinguished him was a feeling that it was not just an unfortunate thing that the schools are being integrated but that it was a cataclysmic moment that was going to lead to a minority-white America and it was going to end Western civilization and that he had to do something. He had dedicated his life to making people aware of that. And the distinguishing factor for him was how extreme he thought the problem was and how far forward he was thinking about it.
GROSS: So, Derek, what was your vision for white nationalism? What did you foresee? You weren't going to try to overthrow a Caribbean island and create a white utopia there. That failed for your father. But did you have an alternate plan for, like, a white space for white people to be independent of anybody of any race and not have to suffer interactions with them?
BLACK: Yeah. I was convinced that there was a lot of latent support for the tenets of white nationalism, that race was super important and that immigration from non-European countries was making things worse and that people believed that in large numbers and would vote for that. And I was born just as David Duke was winning his first campaign in Louisiana in 1989. And my dad was on the road coming back because my mother was in labor. And so I...
GROSS: ...With you?
BLACK: ...Knew - yeah - labor with me. And so I knew from the time that I was a child that white nationalism, as long as it was not necessarily calling itself white nationalism, could win campaigns. So I did things like run little Republican county elections, demonstrate that I could win with the majority of the vote for white nationalist talking points in a very normal South Florida neighborhood. And I ran training sessions on how people could hone their message to try to get that audience, not freak people out and just tap into things like, don't you think all these Spanish signs on the highway are making everything worse? And don't you think political correctness is just not letting you talk about things that are real? And getting people to agree on that would be the way forward.
GROSS: And you won a local election as a member of the West Palm Beach County Republican Committee. But they wouldn't let you take your seat because of your views. So did that - did you feel like that foils your plans for, like, a takeover of the Republican Party?
BLACK: It foiled my plans for being on the administration of the Republican Party and its decision-making in Palm Beach County. But winning the election was always the real goal. It was just trying to prove that I could walk around and organize a campaign and go door-to-door and say everything that white nationalists believed or at least 90 percent of it without saying what the organization my dad ran was and that I could win on that. The point was always to show that that could still work and that in the same year that Barack Obama was running his campaign and was going to win the presidency, that that was a good time to start advocating white nationalist talking points - that Barack Obama winning was a sign that white people would start voting more strongly on racist ideas, not less.
GROSS: Eli, put that into context for us. Was there - was Derek, like, the only person then who was thinking that thought, that with Obama running for president and then becoming a president, this was, like, an opportunity for white nationalists?
SASLOW: I think a lot of white nationalists saw President Obama's election as a huge opportunity for their movement because what white nationalists have done, with dangerous effect, is play to this factually incorrect sense of grievance that exists, unfortunately, in large parts of white America. Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. But by feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of, your country is being taken away - things are changing - this is turning into a place that you don't recognize - we don't need this kind of immigration - we don't want these signs in Spanish - that has a huge effect with a lot of voters. And it's what got Derek elected. And it's what has gotten other politicians elected in our country, as well.
GROSS: Without identifying as white nationalists, without outright saying, hey, I'm a white nationalist - the race issue is separated.
SASLOW: Exactly - right. I think most white people do not want to be called racist. But many white people do have racist views. And by having these conversations when they're not explicitly about race, and they don't involve slurs, white nationalists can connect with a certain number of voters. Derek and his father did some things to this effect that I thought were really interesting in reporting the book, one of which is they - Stormfront invested a lot of money into recording some country CDs. They were slightly more explicitly white pride than what you'd see in mainstream country music. And they would go to big country concerts that were attended by majority-white crowds in the South - an Alan Jackson concerts somewhere in the Deep South. And they would go into the parking lot. And they would hand out the CDs, sort of subtly spreading these messages of more white pride songs to an audience that they thought was going to be more receptive to that message.
GROSS: What kind of lyrics did those songs have?
BLACK: They were messages that did not attack other people. If I remember right, it was all focused on, I'm all right as I am. We like to do what we like to do. We're not hurting anybody. And they are attacking us all the time. Like, that was the sentiment in all of the songs.
GROSS: So we were talking about how white supremacy kind of was rebranded into white nationalism. And the goal of white nationalism is to separate the races. There are other ways that white nationalist racism has been rebranded. And, Derek, I mean, among the things that I think you tried to do was take some of the violence out of the rhetoric. So can you talk about that a little bit?
BLACK: I think one of the most effective things that I and some people I was working with - pretty small little group of people who I had met while doing Internet radio - we would organize little teams that are apparently online hit squads that would go to any article that had anything to do with race and post some carefully done talking points. We developed things like the phrase white genocide, saying that all nonwhite immigration into white countries is white genocide and would talk about white pride, would talk - things like saying anti-racism is a code word for anti-white. And try to keep people on pretty tight talking points and send them out to try to change the conversation anywhere on the Internet where it was happening because we were focused really intently on changing the language and trying to make it comfortable for people who did not want to be called racist to say everything else that white nationalists said.
GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, I have two guests. Derek Black is a former white nationalist leader. And Eli Saslow is a Washington Post reporter who has written a new book about Derek and his role in the white nationalist movement and why he left it. The book is called "Rising Out Of Hatred." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I have two guests. Derek Black is a former leader of the white nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, is a former KKK grand wizard and founded the foremost hate group website Stormfront. Derek founded kidsstormfront.org (ph) and hosted a white nationalist radio show. He's since renounced the white nationalist views and is the subject of a new book by my other guest, Eli Saslow, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter.
I find it really interesting that you and your father tried to cleanse the violence, the violent language and rhetoric out of white nationalism or white supremacy. And yet, Derek, you were describing that you were trying to emphasize that immigration would lead to white genocide, that white people - like, these other guys coming in - they're going to kill all of us. That's really violent language. It's not about you committing the violence, but it's about all the other people, who aren't white, committing violence, committing murder, committing genocide against you. So it's still the language of violence. You just changed who the actors are.
BLACK: And who the victims are.
GROSS: And who the victims are. Exactly.
BLACK: And this was a long process - that immigration was just going to outnumber white people in all their countries. And that that was a threat to all the normal white people who were listening to the radio show or who were posting in the comments section - and that quite unlike what they were being told, they were the aggressors - that they were the people who were making society worse...
GROSS: Yeah, but you were talking about genocide.
BLACK: ...That they were actually being attacked.
GROSS: It's not like, oh, the immigrants are going to take our jobs. Or they're going to speak a foreign language - we're not going to understand it. And American culture, you know, won't be, quote, "pure." You're talking about, like, genocide - like, they are going to kill all of us. We will no longer exist.
BLACK: The talking point about white genocide was usually a little bit less extreme than it sounded. It was that immigration was an attack on whiteness and white people and white kids and that future generations wouldn't be able to have as good of lives as their parents had had because society was trying to undermine their opportunities and to hurt them. And that far from having white privilege - that they were being discriminated against at every turn - and so a hundred years from now, that they wouldn't have a place in this world.
SASLOW: I think it's important to note, also, that the entire ideology - the endpoint of the ideology - is built on a fallacy. And for me, when I was reporting and spending time with white nationalists, I would press them on, what do you mean that you want to separate people of different races into different places? Like, what percent - what percent white is OK? What percent Native is OK? What percent Jewish? They don't know. They don't - they have no idea. So - which I think gets to the core issue that race is a nebulous thing that is - that even white nationalists, when pressed, have a very difficult time defining.
BLACK: I think there was a really good example from the moderator discussion forums, which were never public. And huge debates would come on Stormfront among the moderators about, how are we going to handle this issue? How are we going to handle feminism - women's issues? How are we going to do this or that? And one of those was, how are we going to define who's white? Because only a white person could be a member of Stormfront, but there's no biological definition of white. And so that was very clear. There's no way to say what's the 23andMe definition? - even if that had been around at the time. And there's no biological line because if you walk from northwestern Europe into southeastern Asia, you'll never see the line where white ends and where something else starts. And everybody was very clear on that.
So the conclusion - the only practical conclusion they could come to as to who is white - was that you had to generally be considered visually white by most people in America, and you personally had to define yourself as a white person. And if you did that, then you're white. And that was the only way that they could come to - after thousands of posts - to define, what does a white person even mean?
BLACK: My guests are Derek Black, who was raised in the white nationalist movement and left it in his early 20s, and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who has written a new book about Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Derek Black, a former leader of the white nationalist movement, and Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter who has written a new book about Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred." Derek was raised in the white nationalist movement, a rebranding of white supremacy. Derek's father, Don Black, is a former wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and founded the Internet's largest white nationalist site, Stormfront. When Derek was a teenager, he started the companion website, Kids Stormfront. Derek gave speeches, started his own radio show and was considered the movement's heir apparent. His goal was to infiltrate the Republican Party and bring white nationalism into the center of American politics. The new book is about growing up in the movement and why and how Derek left it and renounced it in his early 20s.
So, Derek, one of the things you did - you had been home-schooled, so you were pretty isolated from any beliefs outside of your family's racist views. But then you went to college, and from the way Eli describes it in the book, it was a pretty liberal college in Florida. There were Jewish people there. You initially tried to hide your identity and then figured you might as well let people know before you were outed by somebody else. You placed a magazine - you placed a publication with an article by you in the gym so that people would find it and realize, oh, God, that's Derek Black.
So after you kind of outed yourself and after having befriended people who were, you know, Jewish and gay and who were, you know, very upset when they found out who you really are, you had Jewish friends who reached out to you. You even had a girlfriend who you dated who you didn't initially know was Jewish. What are some of the things that Jewish friends said to you that made sense to you that you hadn't been exposed to before and you thought maybe there's some legitimacy here?
BLACK: I think it's very interesting that Matthew Stevenson and Moshe Ash, who were the people who invited me to Matthew's Shabbat dinners, took the strategy that I think was very, very smart of not talking to me about it. I went to those dinners for two years, and white nationalism never came up while every other thing that we were possibly interested in did. And I think the - Matthew said that the reason for that was that it would have been not as effective at allowing me to see him and dinners as people, that when my family is talking about something anti-Semitic, that we're not talking about something abstract. We're talking about him. We're talking about his life, and this is very human. And he wanted to demonstrate that. And even if nothing else came from it, it would just be that it was a person who we were thinking about when we were thinking about Jewish people. And...
GROSS: So is that effective? Like, actually meeting Jewish people and having Jewish friends, did you see, you know, Jewish people in general as being human in a way that you hadn't before?
BLACK: Yeah. I think that was actually one of the things that changed about my beliefs earliest - was that the Jewish conspiracy part of white nationalism was a little bit loose and nuts and unnecessary. That didn't undermine the firm belief in racial difference. And there are actually white nationalist groups that already believe that - that, oh, of course Jewish people are white. So it didn't undermine all of white nationalism. But it - I think it was actually pretty early where I said, this is crazy; we need to stop attacking Jewish people, back off.
SASLOW: In addition to being the story of Derek's transformation, I mean, I think the book is also the story of the real courage shown by a lot of students on this campus who invested themselves in trying to affect, you know, profound change. And they did that in a lot of different ways. I mean, there was civil resistance on campus by a group of students who organized a school shutdown and shut down the school and sort of cast Derek out and made it clear to him how awful and how hateful and how hurtful this ideology was. And it was also students like Allison, eventually his girlfriend, who won his trust, built a relationship but also armed herself with the facts and sort of, like, point by point went through and showed how this ideology is built on total misinformation.
And then there were also students like Matthew and Moshe who, in a remarkable act, invited Derek over week after week after week not to build the case against him but to build the relationship, hoping that just by spending more and more time with them, he would be able to begin seeing past the stereotypes to the people and to the humanity and hoping that a relationship in and of itself could be transformative.
And I think it's important to note that that did not happen quickly and that they knew the full horror of a lot of the beliefs of this ideology and the things that Derek had said. Matthew and Moshe in between these dinners would sometimes go back through Derek's old messages on the Stormfront site. And they would see the horrible things that he had said about Jews. And in Moshe's case...
GROSS: What kind of things? Yeah.
BLACK: Jews wormed their way into control over our society. Jews must go. All Jews must go. You know, in the white nationalist ideology, in, like, the awful pyramid of beliefs, Jews are at the top as enemy No. 1 because I think white nationalists believe the Jews have propagated a scheme of multiculturalism and are sort of the No. 1 enemy of what white nationalist would define as the white race.
And so Matthew and Moshe had also in their own lives experienced large degrees of anti-Semitism. In Moshe's case, he's from a family of Hungarian Jews that was all but wiped out by the Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen. And that was the definitive experience of his young life - was growing up in an Orthodox community that was largely defined by an incredible history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
And Moshe had gone and traveled to these concentration camps and had learned German to connect with his father's history. And Derek had also learned German because of his very divergent family history. And the fact that the two of them week after week were sitting at the same table, sometimes having conversations in the German that they'd learned because of these incredibly divergent family histories, began to have an effect.
GROSS: There's a lot of Holocaust denying within the white nationalist movement. So, Derek, did being exposed to someone whose family was killed in death camps during the Holocaust - did that change your mind at all about either the existence of or the scope of the Holocaust?
BLACK: Yeah, I think it did - and also the fact that I wanted to be somebody who based my beliefs in facts and evidence and that I was studying history. And there is no evidence at all to support Holocaust denial. If you want to spend a minute thinking about it, it makes no sense. It's a crazy belief. And so that was also fairly early that this can't work and that this is horrible and that the Nazi regime ended in mass genocide is not something you can just cast aside.
GROSS: Can you explain to me how it's possible to believe in the first place that the Holocaust didn't happen?
BLACK: It is because you go to history conferences with people who do have history credentials, who have taught at universities, who have written books that are published and who are respected in some kind of circle or were at some point in their life. And then you all sit around, and they say, here, let me show you 15 reasons why the Holocaust didn't happen. And then people just sort of buy into it.
I think the real reason looking back on it now is that the National Socialism, the Nazi regime in Germany, has always been the best example of a modern society that actually tried to impose what white nationalists want - forcing people to leave and try to make a racially homogenous society. And if that ended in mass genocide, then how can it be their example? And so my perspective on it now is holocaust denial now has to be so essential to the white nationalist belief system because they can't accept that what they want is going to lead to such horror.
GROSS: That's a really interesting point. Did you admire Hitler when you were still a white nationalist?
BLACK: Tons of people in my family did. I was raised with a little bit of a nod on Hitler's birthday, yes. That was the idea that it didn't end in a Holocaust, and that was the closest that anyone ever came to actually having the white nationalist ideal of society - and that most of the bad stuff that people say about the Nazis is a lie. Like, I was raised with that, totally.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are former white nationalist leader Derek Black and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who has written a new book about Black and his role in the white nationalist movement, and how and why he left it. The book is called "Rising Out Of Hatred." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and I have two guests. Derek Black is a former leader of the white nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, is a former KKK grand wizard and founded the foremost hate group website Stormfront. Derek founded kidsstormfront.org and hosted a white nationalist radio show. He's since renounced his white nationalist views and is the subject of a new book by my other guest, Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter.
So Derek, when you decided that you were going to renounce your views, can you tell us what steps you took to do that and to make it known?
BLACK: Once I had been through this experience, I had to renounce it. I couldn't just not say anything, which was my instinct. I wanted to move to Bermuda and never be heard from again and never speak or be seen. And that - I couldn't just advocate it for the first 22 years of my life and then never say anything again. That was not enough - that I had pushed it forward and that I had to actively push it back. So I wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center explaining what white nationalism was and what I disagreed with and why. And I wanted to get that out there because white nationalists and anti-racists all read the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine, and I knew that that would have the audience that I wanted to see it.
GROSS: And you changed your name. It's pretty much the same. I think you changed it to, like, Roman (ph) Derek Black.
BLACK: I swapped my middle and first name - Derek Roland Black to Roland Derek Black - and then expected I would never talk about white nationalism with anyone ever again.
GROSS: So Derek, one of the reasons why you decided to, like, re-emerge was that you saw people who were committing hate crimes who had believed in the rhetoric you helped spread and who were - you know, who were members of Stormfront, the website your father created. What were some of the things you were seeing, Derek, in American culture that you felt partially responsible for?
BLACK: It was that we had always had this conviction that, although the world says we are so extreme - that the stuff we're saying has purchase - that there are lots of people who agree with the basic stuff about race. And the talking points that always worked were to say, don't you think that Hispanic immigration is not as good as European immigration? Like, don't you think that they are going to commit crimes, that they are not going to be like us, that they're going to change our society for the worse? Or things like, don't you think that the South Side of Chicago or parts of Oakland or east St. Louis, where there's gun violence - don't you notice the people who live there kind of don't look like us? And don't you think it's probably related? Don't you think there's something about them that makes them do that?
And then political correctness says we can't point that out, but it's just real. And you could say that - in my little Republican county campaign, I said that door-to-door. And the universal response was, oh, my God, no one says this stuff, and it's so true. And they're going to call you a racist for saying that kind of stuff. And then I wouldn't say, oh, they have already. I'd say, like, oh, I appreciate your support. And those were the same talking points that were being pushed against Hillary Clinton in a presidential campaign in speeches. And I had no idea what to do with that.
SASLOW: Yeah, unfortunately, I think we don't have to look very hard for examples of this kind of rhetoric now in our politics. You know, when you have someone in a primary position of power saying that we should be prioritizing European immigration, saying we need to build the wall - which is an idea that David Duke and the Klan spent a lot of time investing energy in in the late 1970s. When we have somebody in a huge position of power who's saying we don't want people from [expletive] countries - when you have somebody in a huge position of power who is constantly referring to his own genetics, which is a huge white nationalist talking point. They love to talk about eugenics and the false science of race. And so when you have somebody who's saying, I'm a credit to my great, tremendous, really wonderful genes - which, it turns out, some people might think maybe weren't so tremendous - that's furthering white nationalist talking points. And that's the power on which this stuff is based.
GROSS: Eli, you quote Derek's father, Don Black, as having said that the white nationalists have been trying to recruit the same disaffected whites that Trump is going after. It's the exact same audience.
SASLOW: That's exactly right. And for that reason, you had prominent white nationalists like Jared Taylor organizing robocalls on behalf of the Trump campaign and David Duke going on his radio show and encouraging all of his listeners to go out and volunteer for the campaign because you'll meet people whose beliefs are just like yours. I think white nationalists believe that their relationship with Trump - who I don't think they identify as exactly a white nationalist - but they think their relationship is symbiotic. I mean, they've - he has advanced their movement, Don Black would say, by decades, by creating greater racial polarization in the country and by bringing these talking points to a much wider audience.
BLACK: I think they see him as playing a very similar role to the one George Wallace, the man - segregationist who ran for governor of Alabama and won on a segregationist platform in the 1960s. They didn't view him as a white nationalist, per se, even though they didn't use the term then. They viewed him as an opportunist who was using white grievance and who was speaking things that the media didn't want him to speak. And they saw Donald Trump as a very similar person who was tapping into latent social racial opinion and using it to win campaigns and that that could only help them because it was changing the dynamic. bsite that attracts a large following - several hundred thousand active e-users.
My dad was always very firm my whole life that the problem is that white nationalism is this extremist movement that only attracts the most extreme people. And that was also his reasoning on why you ended up with so much violence coming out of it - because it would bring crazy people - and that the thing that had to change is we had to recruit normal people. And his phrase for that was, we want to recruit the people who start a sentence by saying, I'm not racist, but. And if they've said that, they're almost there. All we have to do is get them to come a little bit further.
GROSS: After Charlottesville - and the march had a lot of, you know, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, whatever you want to call them. And I'm sure it was, like, a mix of racist and anti-Semitic people who were represented there. The president blamed both sides for being violent. And how did that resonate with white nationalists?
BLACK: I think it was a clarion moment. And over the last year, Charlottesville has proved to be a very bad moment for them. And everything was bad about it. It was bad PR because it was gross because normal people wouldn't want to be involved in a disgusting brawl in the streets or to see swastika flags or to see the sort of just bad scene. Everything was bad about it in terms of PR except for the fact that the president of the United States tried to salvage what they were saying. They showed up to say that Confederate memorials are American history, and they represent white history and that taking them down is an attack on white people. And that's what they wanted to say. And it all got lost in the chaos and the violence and the disorganization. And the only thing that redeemed it was the fact that the president was on their side, or at least, it seemed that way.
GROSS: My guests are Derek Black, who was raised in the white nationalist movement, and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who's written a new book about Black's role in the movement and why he left it. It's called "Rising Out Of Hatred." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO AND RAVA QUARTET'S "L'AVVENTURA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Derek Black, who was raised in the white nationalist movement, became a rising star in the movement and then renounced it in his early 20s. Also with us is Eli Saslow, a Washington Post reporter who's written a new book about Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred."
One of the things that Eli Saslow mentions in the book about you, Derek, is that in 2012, after somebody shot up a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and killed six people, it was discovered that he was very active in the website that your father created, Stormfront. I don't mean active in terms of writing things but an active reader. And I wonder if you felt, you know, any guilt after finding that out or if there were other people who had committed violent acts and who espoused views that you had helped spread or had heard your show or were avid readers of your father's website.
BLACK: Yeah. This is the hardest thing for me to reconcile - is the fact that he continues to, and I spent so many years rationalizing that that was not us. We were not responsible for that - that we were not advocating violence. So therefore, when people committed violent acts who had all the same beliefs as us - that that was not us - that that was the media portraying us in a way that attracted psychopaths and that we were somehow not responsible for that because it was not clear how to tangibly connect what I was saying and what I was promoting to the actions that those people took.
And now I look back on it - I said things that tried to energize racist ideas and get people to be more explicit about it. And then people who listened to that and who believed it - some of them committed horrible, violent acts. And what is my culpability and responsibility for how these things went out into the world? And they continue to bounce around in the world, and I can't take them back. Like, that is a - that is a moral weight that is very difficult to reconcile.
GROSS: Derek, are there things that you learned from Eli's reporting? Because he talked to your friends. He talked to other students who went to college with you and knew about your work. He interviewed people in the movement. He spent a lot of time interviewing your father. He interviewed David Duke. So what's one of the things you did not know that you're glad you know now that were in Eli's book?
BLACK: I think I didn't realize how much it hurt my friends at school to be inviting me to their Shabbat dinners and to be arguing with me and to be reading about and thinking about the white nationalist world that hurt them and trying to be my friend and trying to help me. But then I would leave the room, and they would say, this is making our lives worse; why are we doing this, and having to come to the conclusion that it's because we're Derek's friends and we have to do this.
And I never saw those conversations. I would come to dinner and have a pleasant conversation about everything except white nationalism, and then I would go home. And then they would have to sit and bask in what was going on around them and feel vulnerable and feel threatened and feel like they had to put themselves out there again next week when I came over again and that maybe I would never change.
GROSS: Derek, are you still on speaking terms with your parents, who felt betrayed when you renounced white nationalism?
BLACK: Yeah, we still stay in touch. It's always difficult and tense. And there's a big gulf because they believe that I have renounced and I'm attacking their life's work and that I am actively making America worse by promoting more egalitarianism and trying to undermine white supremacy. So this is always a very tense way of talking. But they worked hard to make it so that we can speak. You know, it's - it was never a given that we would have any relationship after I renounced the most fundamental part of their lives. And it was a lot of work on their part that we are able to speak.
And a lot of the conversation with my dad is about politics. We are now coming at it from different sides. He thinks that America's polarization around race is finally happening that he's been predicting for years and years, and it's going to become a world that he has seen coming for years, and that white people will become this minority who asserts their political and financial and social weight.
And I sometimes worry that - I fear there's the same outcome and that we're going to end up with some sort of American apartheid. And we're both talking about that. And I'm trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And he is saying, that's impossible; this is the way things are always going to be.
GROSS: It was interesting to me that you used the word white supremacy in that answer because you're one of the people who helped rebrand white supremacy as white nationalism.
BLACK: Mmm hmm, because white supremacy is the society we live in. It is not a crazy attack. But what is our society when wealth is vastly disproportionately held by white people, when we have the most multiracial country in the history of our nation and yet white people dominate in all chambers of government, in academia vastly above their numbers and that that doesn't seem to be changing very fast? That if the power and the wealth is held by a group that is one day, you know, going to be a smaller minority of the country, then what do you call that?
Because it's not justice and fairness. It's not something that includes everybody. It's something that privileges white people unfairly. Like, that is a white supremacist society just straightforwardly described. And it's not a society that's better for white people, which maybe is a little counterintuitive. But an unfair, unjust society is not one that you want to live in, especially not if that imbalance is going to get worse over time.
GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
SASLOW: Thanks so much for having us.
BLACK: Thanks so much.
GROSS: Derek Black is a former leader of the white nationalist movement who left and renounced the movement. Eli Saslow is a Washington Post reporter. His new book about Black is called "Rising Out Of Hatred." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be singer and pianist Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis' younger sister who toured and recorded with him, and singer, songwriter and guitarist Robbie Fulks. They have a new album of duets called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" I just recorded the interview with them. And as you'll hear, they sang a lot during the interview. And they sound great together. I hope you'll join us. We'll close with some of the title track.
(SOUNDBITE OF LINDA GAIL LEWIS AND ROBBIE FULKS SONG, "WILD! WILD! WILD!")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaer (ph). Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our show was directed today by Therese Madden. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD! WILD! WILD!")
ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Back when this land was a jungle, that's when it was my own. I had a lion's blood. All I wanted was to ravage and roam.
LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) Once you crossed paths with this stray cat, we was ripping it up in style.
LINDA GAIL LEWIS AND ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) We were fast and free - weren't we? - wild, wild, wild. Well, the backwoods clung to our sneakers, and our knees showed through our jeans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.