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Derek Black grew up as a white nationalist. Here’s how he changed his mind

According to the FBI, hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S. Studies also suggest white nationalist and white supremacist ideologies are spreading. Derek Black was raised in a household that espoused such beliefs, but during college, his views gradually evolved. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Black about his journey and the best way to help others find a similar path.

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  • William Brangham:

    The FBI reports that hate crimes are on the rise in this country. A number of analyses have also found a rise in white supremacy.

    As we reported earlier, there was a grim reminder of that again in Colorado this week, when we learned about an alleged white supremacist who was arrested for plotting to blow up a local synagogue.

    Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has been looking at that issue through the eyes of a man with a very unique perspective.

    It's part of our ongoing series Race Matters Solutions.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Meet Derek Black, a young scholar working here at the Library of Congress on his Ph.D. thesis.

    What is the research, mostly?

  • Derek Black:

    Looking at older maps and a lot of the books that were printed in the early colonial period in America.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    He's studying how race was used to define and divide.

    Oh, you mean this is at the very beginning?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes, yes. The very beginning is the 1500s and 1600s.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Derek Black's journey to this moment was maybe more unusual than most in his field. He traced its beginnings back to his youth, when he was brought up in a household led by his father, a dedicated white nationalist who at one time had been a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and who still maintains a Web site dedicated to his white nationalist views.

    Black was an eager student of his father's teaching from an early age. And, as he grew, he became one of the most vocal and prominent young members of the movement. His story was initially captured in a book, "Rising Out of Hatred" by Eli Saslow.

    Derek Black, thank you for joining us.

  • Derek Black:

    Thanks for having me, Charlayne.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    You grew up in a family of white nationalists.

    Do you remember some of the things your father taught you about that whole life and those concepts?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes.

    He always talked about it like it was a calling, like there was nobody in America at this point who was willing to point out what he thought was just true, that it was completely wrong — integration was completely wrong, that race was true and biological, and everybody wanted — really secretly wanted to live separately.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Secretly wanted to live separately?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes, yes, secretly and publicly. Like, he believed that every white person was really kind of in agreement with what he was saying. And that gave him a lot of strength.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    When did you begin to not want to be any part of any of this?

  • Derek Black:

    It was in college.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    In Florida?

  • Derek Black:

    In Florida. Grew up in Florida, went to a liberal arts college in Florida called New College.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    New College.

  • Derek Black:

    And I showed up really with a lot of conviction that you couldn't change my mind, that there was nothing wrong with my beliefs, that they were factual, all this stuff, racism, anti-Semitism, and this whole world view that explains everything through that lens.

    The first thing was realizing that this campus wouldn't be like everywhere else I'd been, that they wouldn't tolerate it. They wouldn't say, oh, you're a white nationalist, but let's just not talk about that, which is what every other environment I have been in, growing up in South Florida before that, was.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, when did it start to change and why? How?

  • Derek Black:

    It was after I got outed on campus. First, this response of condemnation.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    You got outed? How did you get outed?

  • Derek Black:

    Somebody Googled my name.

    And the response of condemnation was the first thing. And…

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Who was condemning?

  • Derek Black:

    It seemed like the entire campus. It felt like — it's an 800-person student body.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How was it manifest?

  • Derek Black:

    There was a student forum. It was an e-mail forum, where everybody could talk about what they were feeling and what was happening.

    And so I could sit there and just read post after post on this 1,000-page message talking about how I was not welcomed here, how I didn't represent them, how they couldn't understand how I could be a part of this place that they were trying to build.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How did that make you feel?

  • Derek Black:

    It was — it was a lot more unsettling, I think, than I thought it would be.

    And so seeing people who I respected saying that what I was — I was espousing was hurting them, was hurting their lives, like, that was a different kind of feeling from every other condemnation I had ever had.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    In the months that followed, a Jewish friend invited Black to weekly Shabbat dinners, and Black accepted, ready for confrontation. It never came.

    He never accused you of being an anti-Semite?

  • Derek Black:

    He didn't.

    I think it was — it was definitely intentional. I talked to him about it a lot since then, that that first dinner and the ones afterwards, he thought it was going to be counterproductive to try to have a big debate.

    Like, he asked other people who were at the dinner to — just don't bring it up, because he's at a Shabbat dinner, and his ideology is anti-Semitism.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    They knew?

  • Derek Black:

    That alone — yes. He thought that alone will be kind of a challenge to me.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, after, what, two years or more…?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes, it was about two years.

    And there was one person in particular who I met at those dinners who we started having these lengthy, quiet, in-good-faith conversations that started out with me asking, how — where's the misunderstanding, right? That was my first question, and slowly realizing that, like, it's not a misunderstanding. This is an assault on their personhood.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    There's a lot of speculation these days about why there seems to be a growing population of white nationalists, white supremacists.

    And the argument is that they are fearful of becoming a minority in a country where black and brown people are becoming the majority, say, over the next 30, 40 years.

    Is there anything to that, as far as you can see?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes, I think…

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Is it fear?

  • Derek Black:

    Yes, I think that fear is the leading driver of people joining the white nationalist movement. It's this idea that they're threatened, that they are losing something, that they're being attacked. It's all this stuff that's, for the record, not real.

    And it's what keeps them bound up in that world, where they can't look out and see that the threat is not real, that they are not in danger, that the world is fine.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Derek and his father have reconciled, but have also stuck to their own positions.

    How do you begin to reach people who have those views, to get them, in a way, on the path that you took…

  • Derek Black:

    Right.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    … if that's possible?

  • Derek Black:

    I think it's never going to be as easy as trying to argue somebody into a new world view.

    Looking back on my experience, I think what happened was, it took place through discussion and debate. Like, that's what I felt was really convincing me was, what are my ideas and why are they wrong?

    But looking back on it, it was the fact that I was in a different community. And so you can't force that to happen, but it's also not quite as hard as we might think.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    When you look at this toxic atmosphere in our country today, in particular in our country, but it seems to be all over the world in so many other places too, are you at all hopeful that we can ever be united we stand ever again, if we ever did stand united?

  • Derek Black:

    Right.

    I mean, I — I find it difficult to move forward and be engaged without having some sort of hope, because I think that you can see hope in every individual person who comes to a new understanding or thinks about things or changes.

    And so that's always my advice to other people who are at a loss for what should we do, is just start with one person that you have a connection with. And that's the most important and powerful thing you can possibly do.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Derek Black, thank you for joining us.

    And I wish you all the best with your studies and with everything that you're engaged in.

  • Derek Black:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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