Can a white supremacist be deradicalized? A former white nationalist says yes

Former white nationalist Derek Black gives a talk at MIT on Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018 as part of "Thoughts and Considerations: A Lunch-Time Series." Photo by Meaghan Tao / BU News Service.
Former white nationalist Derek Black gives a talk at MIT on Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018 as part of "Thoughts and Considerations: A Lunch-Time Series." Photo by Meaghan Tao / BU News Service.

By Meaghan Tao
BU News Service

Among the ranks of the white supremacist movement, Derek Black was known as “the heir.” Son of Don Black, a notorious white nationalist who created the website Stormfront, an anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi online forum with over 300,000 users, Dereck Black was raised at the forefront of the movement, ever immersed in the ideology of white supremacy and the politics of race.

His mother was once married to David Duke, former KKK grand wizard, who also became his Godfather. At the age of 19, Black was already hosting his own conservative radio show. He had just launched a white nationalist website for children and had been elected to serve as a committee member at Palm Beach County, Fla., after running a campaign focused on the dangers of political correctness, affirmative action and Hispanic immigration.

But for Black, the path of being a rising star within the white nationalist movement was rather short. By 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president amid a divisive campaign that exploited racial tensions and echoed some of the core principles of white supremacy, Black was no longer at the forefront. Instead, he had distanced himself from an ideology he said he no longer understood.

With the midterm elections coming up, MIT hosted a series of lunchtime talks throughout the month of October to encourage political discussion. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, Derek Black spoke about his deradicalization, at a panel moderated by Kate Mytty, an instructor at the university.

In the wake of the recent tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburg, the conversations around political extremism loom larger than ever. “It’s a gut punch to read about the horrifying murders in Pittsburg,” said Black. “I think in terrifying moments like this, it’s hard to find an immediate solution.”

Black recounted his experiences with slowly shedding the white supremacy ideology as he came into contact with students from a wide variety of backgrounds at his university in Florida, where he was confronted with an overwhelmingly liberal student body who shunned him after discovering his identity.

However, a few acquaintances sought to understand Black and his beliefs, inviting him into their home for weekly Shabbat dinners. Over the course of two years, Black slowly warmed up to the host, Matthew Stevenson, and his college roommate Allison Gornik.

Being exposed to different ideologies and beliefs eventually led to Black’s public disavowal of white nationalism, approximately two years after he started attending the Shabbat dinners.

According to Black, Gornik was a key factor in his change of views. As a white woman with no personal stake in a conversation primarily targeting Jews and people of color, she constantly engaged and challenged Black in private conversations where he felt safe expressing his views and picking them apart with her help.

Gornik explained the importance of social position in arguments. “A white person is more likely to listen to another white person about racism, similar to how a man is more likely to listen to another man about sexism,” she said. “I knew this, and I think in general white people have a long way to go in being willing to engage with other white people around antiracism.”

Black similarly advocates for increased conversation making use of privilege. “There’s something about a [white] person who could be part of this and benefitting from this [system] push back, that makes you ask why,” he said.

Gornik described how she approached her relationship with Black with patience and an authentic sense of curiosity.

“I did my best to balance my own frustration and anxiety with being genuinely baffled by how Derek came to the beliefs he had,” Gornik said. “I believed that if he wasn’t going to walk away from the conversation, then I also had an obligation to continue the conversation.”

Additionally, Black shared some insights into having open and honest conversations with people of differing ideologies and cited some common reasons for political radicalization. “What happens is finding other people who don’t call you bad names for believing [what you believe], and then you can escalate because you feel supported by each other,” he said.

Black advised reaching out and engaging with people who do not share similar beliefs. “We take the wind out of the sails of the most extreme, racist ideas by reaching out to the big middle of America,” he said. “Without that latent support, even unknowing, for the tenets of white nationalism, it’s much harder for hateful and factually incorrect ideas to spread.”

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