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Rising out of hatred : the awakening of a former white nationalist [DAPL book club kit]
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New York Times Review
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-toriches 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 offlimits, 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." The more academic life grew on Derek, the more he feared that his peers would discover his alter ego, and one night in the spring of his first year that's exactly what happened. On a campuswide online message board, someone posted a photo of Black: "Have you seen this man? Derek Black. White supremacist, radio host . . . New College student?" Saslow has a knack for milking his characters' trials for all their zeitgeisty relevance, and he shows how the resulting conflict between students and administrators foreshadowed larger questions that campuses across the country would soon confront about free speech and extremism. At one point after being exposed, Derek ventured out during a campus festival and was heckled by fellow students. Another day, a student, posting on the schoolwide online forum, declared: "Violence against white supremacists will send a message that white supremacists will get beat up. That's very productive." Yet while most students shunned Derek, Matthew refused to do so. As an observant Jew, he had "already experienced enough shaming at New College to believe that exclusion only reinforced divides," and he continued to invite Derek to Shabbat dinners, which on any given night might include a few Orthodox Jews, an immigrant and a gay student. But when, after months of these dinners, Derek failed to transform from a white nationalist caterpillar into a progressive butterfly - at one point he even organized a high-profile conference of white nationalist leaders - his friends confronted a strategic and moral conflict that mirrors the plight of many Americans today when deciding how best to deal with racists. As Moshe, a friend, whose grandfather survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, wondered: "What if all he had done by befriending Derek was to enable him, to provide him with cover from the social-justice activists on campus so that he could continue to promote a racist ideology while living a comfortable college life? What incentive did Derek have to change?" His incentive, it would turn out, was romantic love. At the dinners he met a woman named Allison who at first gave him the cold shoulder and then justified her inexplicable attraction to him as being part of a project to reform him, though in reality her feelings for Derek were as organic - and confusing - for her as they were for him. As Allison grew to love Derek, and as he reciprocated, he began to trust her. Christian Picciolini, in his memoir, "White American Youth" (2017), describes the importance of empathy - how receiving it from others at a time when he felt he least deserved it was lifesaving, helping to pull him out of extremism. But the importance of empathy is primarily that it builds trust, and once you trust someone, you'll listen to him or her. For Derek, that meant listening to Allison when she sent him dozens of studies over the course of many months showing, for example, that victims of racism had higher blood pressure, depression and heart disease. "For years Derek had been hearing about the abstract evils of racism, which he had always dismissed as empty rhetoric from his enemies on the liberal left," Saslow writes. But Allison "made Derek begin to wonder if in fact he had been wrong in his theory that actually it was white people who were discriminated against." Allison also forced him to imagine the effects his ideas would have on people he cared about at New College. One weekend, while the two were driving back to school from a road trip to a state park, a relationship spat turned into a full-on ideological battle. Even though Derek had by now begun privately doubting many of his beliefs, he still clung to the idea that white nationalism was simply about defending whites, not harming nonwhites. "Your stupid theory makes no sense," Allison finally said. "Didn't white nationalists want to deport . . . minorities and uproot their lives? . . . Did he somehow not understand why that idea would be threatening for Rose, or Moshe or Matthew? . . . When the great deportation came, would Derek himself be willing to break into their homes and force them out? Or would he stand by and watch as his father and other Stormfront members did it for him?" When Derek later confronts his dad with this same question, at least Don is honest about the implications of what he'd been advocating all along: Immigrants, Jews and blacks could "be forced to leave," he replies, to Derek's horror. "This country is on the verge of a reckoning." Derek's naïveté, on the other hand, is exasperating, and by the time he finally tells Allison, in his senior year, "I'm done. I don't believe in it, and I'm not going to be involved," it's a bit anticlimactic. It may be impossible to trace a direct connection between Derek's beliefs and activities, on the one hand, and white nationalist violence, on the other. But it's a discomfiting fact that at least six murderers turn out to have used Stormfront as a resource, including Dylann Roof, who logged on as "LilAryan" before killing nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. In his 23 years as a white nationalist, Derek gave dozens of interviews and speeches, and organized a large conference promoting his ideas; his radio show influenced hundreds, possibly thousands of people. By the time Trump became the Republican nominee for president, Derek had changed his name to Roland Derek Black, quit the movement, been disowned by some members of his family and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in medieval history at the University of Chicago. He wanted to hide - he was disgusted with himself - but Allison, ever his moral compass, insisted that he owed a debt to the country he helped divide. Like his dad and David Duke, Derek saw in Trump's rise a validation of their efforts to popularize white nationalism, though unlike them he was aghast. "Maybe Trump wasn't in fact a white nationalist," Don cheers, "but he sure was good at sounding like one." Yet when Derek finally decides to go all out in denouncing white nationalism in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, becoming a reluctant public face of antiracism days after the election, the reader can't help feeling that he's getting off, and out of the movement, a little too easily. In Picciolini's case, his wife and children lefthim and he sank into a suicidal depression before his rebirth as a "former"; Frank Meeink, the ex-Nazi author of "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead," became addicted to heroin; and Angela King, the subject of "Meeting a Monster," a recent biopic about her life as a skinhead, went to prison. As any reader of the Bible knows, the more dramatic the suffering, the more rewarding the redemption, and in the end, Derek Black's transformation is too little, too late. At the conclusion of "Rising Out of Hatred," he's a student in a top Ph.D. program and gets to keep the girl, while his parents threaten only to take away his credit card. "I'm part of all this, and it makes me ill," he told Allison in the summer of 2016, a few months before Trump's election. "I wish there was some way to not think about that." WES ENZINNA is a senior editor at Harper's.
Library Journal Review
Derek Black was supposed to be a household name, at the forefront of white nationalism's push for a single-race nation. Instead, a conflicted multiyear alteration led to him disavowing his past beliefs. -Salsow (Ten Letters) traces Black's upbringing and his early successes to further this ideology, continuing through his transformation to rejecting publicly white nationalism and advocating for a diverse society, while sacrificing relationships with family and lifelong friends. Black's change was partly made possible by his privileged socioeconomic status, with travels throughout the world, though the true protagonist here is not Black but rather all those around him who were appalled at his views though still willing to engage in respectful dialog. VERDICT The heart of this book is the impact we do and can have on one another through meaningful, respectful interaction. Anyone looking to learn more about the history of white nationalism, and gain clarity of the arguments against it, will appreciate this compelling biography.-Zebulin Evelhoch, NC LIVE, Raleigh © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Persuasion triumphs over ideology in this searching account of a young man questioning his caustic beliefs by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Saslow (Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President). Derek Black, son of white nationalist leader Don Black and godson of ex-Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, was, at the age of 19, a star of the white nationalist movement with a radio show on which he preached racial separatism and claims of white persecution by minorities and Jews. Then in 2010 he began attending the ultra-liberal New College of Florida. His presence, Saslow writes, caused a furor, with many students denouncing and shunning him as a racist, but others reached out: a Jewish student invited him to regular Shabbat dinners, and he began a relationship with a woman who challenged his racial doctrines with scientific studies and demanded that he think about the impact of his views on people he knew. That sustained engagement eventually convinced Black to repudiate his racist views-and forced a wrenching break with his family. Saslow tells this story with an impressive evenhandedness and empathy for everyone involved. The result is a gripping and timely examination of the "alt-right" subculture and the potential for dialogue and moral reasoning to overcome hateful dogmas. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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