Derek Black Was a Leader in the White Supremacist Movement. Until He Wasn't.
Still, Black was largely under the public's radar when he enrolled at New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in Sarasota. "That was fine with me. I thought of my white nationalism and college as separate spheres that didn't have to mix," he says. "I'd been interviewed many times, but for the first semester, nobody recognized me." After a post on the college's student message board revealed his politics, however, a wave of outrage rolled across campus. The post provoked more than 1,000 furious replies—and one unorthodox idea from an Orthodox Jewish student: Invite this redheaded, baby-faced hatemonger over for Shabbat dinner with a diverse group of friends, just to talk. Strange as it may seem, Black accepted. He explains: "I was raised with the idea that race is only an issue in the aggregate. And I wanted to interact with people on a normal level."
Black walked in, a bottle of red wine in hand—"I didn't think about making sure it was kosher," he says—and improbably, that one night turned into two years of regular meals of baked salmon (his host's only recipe) and challah, during which genuine friendships blossomed. "There was sort of an unspoken rule that we'd never talk about my nationalism at dinner," says Black. After nearly an entire school year, however, his companions started asking questions. "I had a bunch of talking points—crime statistics and other things—that ‘proved' my belief system. And my immediate reaction was that my friends were completely wrong," he says. "But over time, they made it personal. They'd ask, 'You hang out with Juan—do you think he should be expelled from the country?' It was difficult to say, ‘No, I'm talking about federal policies, not Juan.' I thought, I'm just here for gentlemanly debates. But you can only maintain that for so long."
In his sophomore year, Black was stunned to learn that his very presence on campus had prompted a Jewish student organization to temporarily shut down. "That's probably the first moment where I realized that maybe I wasn't being misunderstood," he says. "That perhaps my beliefs negatively impacted people I liked and cared about. It wasn't just, maybe sometimes I'm wrong. It was like, oh, maybe sometimes I'm making their lives inarguably worse." Meanwhile, he was taking classes in medieval history and Jewish scripture, absorbing information that contradicted the doctrine he'd been raised on.
In 2013, after visiting his parents and feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the need to distance himself from their way of thinking, Black wrote an email to the Southern Poverty Law Center disavowing his beliefs and renouncing his white nationalist ties. "I can't support a movement that tells me I can't be a friend to whomever I wish," he wrote. The statement was published online, inciting death threats against Black; his father suggested he'd been brainwashed. His relationship with his family is now, to put it mildly, strained. "I wish our family business had been running a bakery or an Etsy store," he says. "I wish it weren't something so destructive."
Today Black is outspoken about his new world view. "I'm continually learning how to contribute to positive change," he says, "while trying my best not to do damage." And he keeps his experience in perspective. "Outreach and discourse won't magically solve the problem of hate," he says. "But without those private conversations with people I cared about, I might not have seen the weaknesses in my arguments. And without the campus outrage, I might never have engaged in those conversations in the first place. The stuff that white nationalists believe—it's factually incorrect. But you can't throw facts at somebody and change their mind. It matters who's saying it and whether there's mutual respect."
Now in graduate school studying history, Black says it's more urgent than ever that we discuss inequality. "We don't like to deal with it, but our country still lives with a legacy of white supremacy, which results in an incredibly wide wealth and power gap between white people and everyone else," says Black. "That doesn't implicate every white person as a racist, but the last year or two has made it evident that racist ideologies still have a lot of power. I'll use whatever platform I have to acknowledge that."