Growing up, I imagined I could easily spot the racists around me. They were the ones proudly displaying the Confederate flag across the back of their pickup trucks or blatantly disregarding other people based on the color of their skin. I looked at them and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t been born into that kind of family or raised in that distorted version of Christianity.
But then I started to realize how much I had profited from systems designed to benefit people who looked more like me than my husband, an African American man, or our mixed-race sons. Like many of my European American brothers and sisters, I began awakening to my own racial identity. And that meant confronting the racist within me, lamenting the many ways I had been an oppressor to the marginalized.
When I say this, it makes me realize I’m not radically different from someone like Derek Black, once dubbed the “White Power Prodigy.” Raised in a culture of white supremacy, he seemed fated to become the next leader of the white nationalist movement. His father founded the notorious white supremacist website Stormfront.org, and his godfather was none other than David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard.
But as journalist Eli Saslow shows in Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, when Black left home to attend New College of Florida, he underwent a most unlikely moral transformation—a change birthed by the power of relationships.
A Secret Exposed
As a Christian, I often fling the word relationships around without much of a thought. But relationships are at the heart of the gospel. Because God first loved us, followers of Jesus are commanded, above all things, to love God and love other people (Mark 12:30–31). On these relationships we center our lives. And as we give ourselves over to them, they can end up changing us in unexpected ways—a truth to which Derek Black can powerfully attest.
When Black first arrived on campus as a 19-year-old homeschool transfer, he flew under the radar. Pursuing a double major in German and medieval history (subjects he associated with white European dominance), he didn’t advertise his upbringing or his involvement with white nationalism. Unbeknownst to his peers, he continued moderating the world’s largest white-pride website, stealing away five mornings a week to call into the radio show he cohosted with his father. There, he theorized about “the criminal nature of blacks” and the “inferior natural intelligence of blacks and Hispanics,” among other speculations.
By the time his secret was exposed and he returned to campus after a semester abroad in Germany, Black felt free not to live a double life anymore. After all, his godfather, David Duke, had provoked outrage in college when he began speaking every Wednesday in Free Speech Alley. Liberated and spurred on by the hatred of his peers, the budding grand wizard no longer worried about whether he was liked.
Black was different, though. Feelings of isolation and rejection overwhelmed him. (The administration, after learning about his beliefs, had chosen to let him remain enrolled, so long as he didn’t threaten anyone’s safety. Officials took to classifying the controversy as a “student-life matter.”) Campus activists were adamant that the best way to engage the racist in their midst was to disengage entirely. Saslow quotes one of their directives: “Do not make eye contact or make him feel acknowledged at all. Make him as irrelevant as his ideology.”
But despite this wall of hostility (and the distancing effect of his own toxic prejudices), Black befriended a number of students from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Two Jewish brothers started inviting him to their weekly Shabbat [Jewish sabbath] dinner—even after his white-supremacist identity had been discovered. Desperate for companionship, Black accepted their invitation. No one had any illusions of swiftly persuading him to renounce white nationalism; they sought only to establish a foundation of mutual respect so that Black might actually see the enemy he had so long despised. As one of the hosts later mused to Saslow, “The goal was really just to make Jews more human for him.”
The more Black listened to the stories of his friends, nearly all of whom could point to vastly different life experiences, the more those stories began to affect him. Although he still clung to his beliefs, he found he no longer wanted to suppress the different currents of thought and emotion warring within him. Little by little, brick by brick, over the course of several years, the walls of hatred miraculously began to crumble.
Is it any different for you and me? Augustine says that when we realize the darkness or evil within us, we awaken to the absence of good, to a lack of truth and beauty in our lives. I think about the limited perspective I held for much of my life, a perspective that didn’t give heed to my brothers and sisters of color. I thought I didn’t need their stories in my life; I was getting along just fine in the place I’d created for myself, in a world made up of people who mostly looked like me, thought like me, and acted like me.
Too often, I fill my table with family, friends, and other companions who fall under the same umbrella of politics and faith—in other words, people who mostly agree with me about how to raise our children and make an impact on the world around us. But in the Book of Hebrews, the unknown author exhorts readers to extend hospitality not merely to those we already love, but also to the strangers in our midst (13:2). In the two Jewish brothers who extended the hand of peace to the stranger among them—to a man who had spoken of their people in the most degrading, dehumanizing fashion—we see a fine example of radical hospitality in action.
For me, their remarkable gesture of friendship also calls to mind an encounter in Luke 19: When Jesus instructed Zacchaeus to come down from the tree so he could go over to his house for dinner, the immoral tax collector was overjoyed. Not unlike Black, he was acutely aware of being reviled and shunned by his community. But a single encounter with the One who called him by name brought about immediate change in nearly every area of his life. I don’t doubt the same was true for the one tabbed as the next leader of the white nationalist movement, even if his awakening was more gradual than immediate.
Reaching the Breaking Point
But friendship wasn’t the only factor. Romantic love also played a pivotal part in shifting Black’s moral compass. After becoming a fixture at the Friday night dinners, he got to know a fellow student, Allison. Their connection was almost kinetic, and naturally enough, Allison started puzzling over the disparity between Black’s beliefs and his actions. As Saslow reports, she found herself asking, “How could someone who seemed mild and kind promote something so hateful and oppressive?”
As their relationship morphed into romance, Allison further pressed into him, bombarding him with evidence and data that conflicted with his perception of rampant discrimination against white people. She struck back, writes Saslow, against the “myths he had propagated about ‘Jewish manipulation,’ ‘testosterone-fueled black aggression,’ or larger brain sizes for whites.” Just as she wondered if she’d gone too far, she saw hopeful signs that Black’s growing discomfort with his family’s gospel of white nationalism might precipitate a cleaner break.
As a reader, I wondered how Black’s story would have ended had Allison never intervened. In a way, her love was the ultimate catalyst for change: Not unlike God’s love for us, she loved him exactly as he was, but because of that love she refused to let him cling to an oppressive and destructive ideology. Her constant, unwavering presence opened Black’s eyes to new life, to the beauties of community and fellowship across racial and ethnic lines.
Once that vision took hold, Black couldn’t toe the line any longer. In 2013, as college graduation loomed, Allison encouraged him to publicly distance himself from white nationalism. He mourned the likelihood of severed relationships with his family and the community of his youth, but eventually he penned an email to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which published the letter in full. Acknowledging his gradual awakening to truth, Black concluded, “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.”
The white-nationalist community reacted with anger and disbelief. Black’s father initially thought his son’s email had been hacked, later describing the news as the worst experience of his life. Meanwhile, his former mentor, David Duke, thought Black was suffering from some kind of Stockholm syndrome. But Black knew his change of heart was real, and he resolved to use his voice and his story to make right the lies of his past.
Although years have passed since Black made his public confession, Saslow doesn’t reveal much about the rest of his story, which sometimes leaves the reader with more questions than answers. In that time, of course, we’ve witnessed a troubling surge in white-nationalist sentiment, often couched in aggressively patriotic rhetoric and inflamed by political leaders. It’s tempting to react like Black’s more militant classmates, shunning those with offensive beliefs and basking in feelings of moral superiority. But Rising Out of Hatred should instead challenge us to actively break bread with racists, to patiently model a more Christlike attitude, and to search for signs of hidden racism in our own hearts, too.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her memoir, The Color of Life: A Journey toward Love and Racial Justice (Zondervan), will be published in February.