We’ve all seen the debate about ‘Nature vs. Nurture’. Are parts of our personalities hardwired into our DNA or is everything about us determined by how we’re raised? Reading Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a White Supremacist by Eli Saslow puts hefty weight on ‘Nurture’. Even more, this isn’t just any white supremacist, this is the once and future king of the White Power movement. The birth, growth, and momentum right up to today, but it all ties into the poignant story of Derek Black. A disarmingly polite, stunningly intelligent young redhead, Derek was born into hate.
His father, Don Black, is a former KKK Grand Wizard and creator of the largest online hate site, Stormfront.org. As Derek grew up, he followed in his fathers footsteps, but quickly surpassed Don’s computer and technical know-how. 11-year-old Derek had already created two websites, one was family friendly, in contrast the other was kids.stormfront.org, full of racist songs and cartoons for kids to soak up. Well, only white kids, that is.
It was readily apparent as Derek grew up, he would be the face of the movement. He would help transition it past the nationally unappetizing days of cross burnings and vulgar epithets to the camera-ready, well dressed faux-intellectual “White Rights Movement.” Now their messages of hate were spouting on TV broadcasts, news and politics shows, and national college speaking tours. If you weren’t listening closely, you might even begin to agree with them. Instead of saying “Get the *&#[email protected] out of our country!”, now they were saying “Multiculturalism creates friction between groups and society would be better served if the groups were completely separated.”.
Derek delivered the hateful and noxious party line from the extreme right, but was soft-spoken, attentive, and patient. He never debated in a way to make the other person look dumb. He always sounded as if he was doing a community service educating the unknowing masses. It was all pseudo-scientific facts supporting the same decades old racist message. Eli Saslow captures it all in an effortlessly readable narrative. Even the most ardent supporter of the most vile and violent hate group could question those beliefs by just talking to the people they’re supposed to hate.
Then Derek decided to attend New College in northern Florida, far outside his white sheet-covered bubble. He found hating outright the people he met there was tougher than he thought. He became friends with people from all walks of life. Plus his first dating experience there was with a Jewish girl, which also led to his first heartbreak. A magazine interview got published outing his racist thoughts and roots and his girlfriend couldn’t stomach it. Saslow relates this nicely,
In the past, the victims of his rhetoric had always been out of sight on the other side of the curtain, imaginary enemies nursing imaginary wounds, but now he had seen the injuries firsthand.
After it went viral on campus, it was the beginning of the end for the future hate leader. Many people taunted him, screamed in his face, and debated in all caps on the campus online forum. The question was whether the school should kick him out.
This specific point is one to remember. New College at the time was as left as left could get. Yet an overwhelming amount of the students did not want to debate Derek. They did not want to try and reason with him to change his heart. They wanted him gone. An upperclassmen began pointing out that complete exclusion of Derek was against their stated core beliefs.
Friends he made before the interview went out made a specific effort to invite Derek to a weekly Shabbat dinner. It included a rotating guest list, all of whom wanted nothing to do with Derek at first. After weeks upon weeks of Derek showing up, some of the ice began to crack. Matthew, who hosted the dinners, had long discussions into the night about Derek’s views and why they were harmful.
A new girlfriend came into the picture. She stuck by Derek through everything, persistently challenging him to read studies, lectures, and books. All the material was pushing back against all the “facts” he was repeating from memory. Like a tenacious drill instructor, she refused to back down. Finally, he not only changed his beliefs, but also quit Stormfront.org and left the White Nationalist movement. Eventually he took the final and biggest step by publishing an open letter on the New College forum once and for all renouncing everything.
Derek thought long and hard on this because his family, which he loved and cares deeply for, were likely going to banish him as a result. He was absolutely on point with that fear. His father was one of the very few who reached out at all. Don was heartbroken and reeled in a delusion for months thinking he could talk Derek back into the fold.
Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow shows the power of humanity and persistence in the face of one of the most powerful hate groups in the country. One conversation led to more conversations and more beyond that until truth overwhelmed fear. It’s a lesson everyone on any side of an issue should take to heart.
*Reviewer’s Note: This book was sent to me for the purpose of writing a review, but neither the publisher or the book being sent to me affected the outcome of the review.*