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Renouncing Hate: What Happens When a White Nationalist Repents

By September 11, 2018No Comments

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Americans love redemption stories. The Old Testament tale of Exodus — the slaves’ flight from Egypt and their salvation in the desert — may be the most epic of all such sagas, and the Puritans aboard the Mayflower thought of their flight from King James as an exodus of the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh. Ben Franklin’s best-selling “Autobiography” mythologized his rags-to-riches rise from indentured servant to inventor and statesman, and in so doing he further stitched the redemption narrative into the nation’s moral fabric. Since then, activists, politicians and businessmen have all borrowed the story line to lend legitimacy to their ambitions, but few have done so more powerfully than civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that Christians who had succumbed to bigotry could repent only by righting racial wrongs; Malcolm X recounted his transformation from hustler and felon to militant activist and Muslim, and in so doing, he invited a nation of sinners to follow him down the same spiritual path. In America, the resurrected wretch (“I once was lost but now am found”) has more authority than the pious innocent — to have fallen and been redeemed is an act of self-invention and moral fortitude that mirrors the Pilgrims’ own impossible journey.

Today, in the upside-down world that is Trump’s America, where anything seems possible and nothing is off limits, we’re seeing the emergence of a new type of redemption story: that of the white supremacist turned antiracist crusader. In defiance of antifa radicals who support “punching Nazis” to shut them up, and free-speech absolutists who think it’s enough to ignore them and hope they’ll go away, “formers,” as many ex-white supremacists call themselves, teach us from their own experiences about the complicated roles empathy and exclusion play in conversion; about the addictive nature of hate; about how encounters with “others” can be transformative. “There will be people who will say, ‘Once a Nazi, always a Nazi,’ and that you can’t change who you are,” the former extremist Christian Picciolini says on a recent MSNBC special, “Breaking Hate,” in which he coaches white supremacists trying to leave hate groups. “But I know change is possible.”

In this vein comes RISING OUT OF HATRED: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist (Doubleday, $26.95), by Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, who tells the story of Derek Black, the son of Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, until recently the largest and most important extremist website in America. Derek’s godfather is David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Louisiana state representative, who groomed Derek from an early age to succeed him as a leader of the white nationalist movement, and who saw in Derek’s polite and thoughtful demeanor, his careful avoidance of racial slurs, his “shoulder-length red hair” and “large black cowboy hat,” the precocious face of that future.

Saslow had full access to Derek, his father (who remains a committed white nationalist), and Derek’s friends and acquaintances, who provided Saslow with invaluable chat logs, emails and recordings that allowed him to dramatize his subject’s evolving belief system with novelistic intimacy. Derek and today’s white nationalist movement matured alongside each other, and he learned from a young age that the old-school extremism practiced by his father was a liability. Before launching Stormfront in 1996, Don Black led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and went to prison for plotting to overthrow the Caribbean island of Dominica in order to establish a white ethno-state there. Intuitive and whip-smart, young Derek learned from his father’s failures that “white nationalism could only grow into a viable political movement if it adopted a new language of its own — a vocabulary that sanitized the ideology and distanced it from a history of violence.”

Growing up in West Palm Beach, Fla., he created a “kids” section of Stormfront aimed at recruiting “white children of the globe” and another one devoted to “The Lord of the Rings.” He also co-hosted with his father a popular radio show that mixed country music with ideology. Seizing on a spike in interest in the site after Barack Obama became president, Derek persuaded his dad to ban racial slurs, Nazi imagery and threats of violence or lawbreaking, which helped the site grow from 30,000 users in 2007 to 300,000 in 2017. “You’ve laid the foundation to build our new white republic,” Matthew Heimbach, a young white nationalist leader, told Don Black and a crowd of white supremacists in Tennessee in 2013. “Now my generation is primed for this revolution. … I’ve been reading Stormfront since I was in high school, and it planted the seeds in my mind.”

By that time, however, Derek had undergone a transformation. In 2010, he enrolled at New College of Florida, in Sarasota, where his dad was convinced he was on a reconnaissance mission, living, as a caller to their radio show put it, “among the enemy in a hotbed of multiculturalism.” Instead, Derek made fast friends with Juan, a Peruvian immigrant, and Matthew, an Orthodox Jew, and he dated a Jewish woman named Rose, feeling “as if he were occupying two lives: breakfast at New College with Rose and one of her transgender friends and then Thanksgiving dinner with Don, Chloe” — Derek’s mother — “and a few former skinheads in West Palm Beach.”

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