Why a White Supremacist Renounced his Faith.
How a Shabbat dinner gave a young leader in the White Nationalist movement food for thought.
Derek Black’s story went viral. A former leader of the White Nationalist movement, he renounced his racism and anti-Semitism, dissociated from white nationalism and supremacism and apologised for the damage he has done. The level of indoctrination to which Derek was subjected, as well as his own activism, makes his rejection of the very foundations of his life all the more intriguing.
Derek made his dramatic announcement in 2013 when he sent a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s website which included the following statement: “The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.” He then refused to speak to the press and all but disappeared.
The catalyst for Derek’s change of heart was an invitation to Shabbat dinner.
Washington Post investigative journalist Eli Saslow finally tracked him down but it took a year till Derek agreed to talk about what had led to his break with racism. Saslow’s interview revealed the catalyst for Derek’s change of heart – an invitation to Shabbat dinner.
To appreciate just a how dramatic this is, we need to look into Black’s ‘illustrious’ heritage. Derek is the only child of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard who founded and runs Stormfront, the biggest racial hate site. Stormfront is a forum for 300,000 neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists and it is banned in several countries where Holocaust denial and hate speech are crimes. A 2014 study revealed registered Stormfront users have been disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings since the site was put up in 1995. The list includes Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people in the 2011 Norway attacks.
Derek Black, at age 9, at a gathering in Jackson, Miss., of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens. He is pictured with then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice.
At the time of Derek’s announcement his father went into a depression, having to admit to Stormfront’s users that his son had betrayed everything he had been taught to believe. Several members reacted by issuing death threats. Stormfront also supports Jew Watch, an intensely creepy neo-Nazi website with thousands of articles denying the Holocaust and citing Jewish world domination. Jew Watch was infamously the number one Google result when typing in the word Jew into the search engine. The outcry that ensued at the time forced Google to place an explanation of this result.
Derek’s mother, Chloe, was previously married to David Duke, a white nationalist of the same ilk as her husband. Duke has travelled the world promoting his views and books which include the title Jewish Supremacy – My Awakening to the Jewish Problem. He claims a doctorate from a notoriously anti-Semitic university (not accredited) – his thesis: Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism. Duke is Derek’s godfather.
Klu Klux Klan grand wizard Don Black (Derek’s father), center, at the cross-burning climax of a Klan recruitment rally in 1982.
Derek brought his family much nachas as a child, his father affectionately calling him “the Devil’s child” – as a compliment. At age 10, he created a children’s forum on Stormfront. Later he created his own radio show. As he grew up he travelled around the country with his father speaking at White Nationalist conferences and by his early 20’s he was organising them. He entered politics campaigning for mainstreaming white nationalism, and trying to attain recognition of ‘the white genocide” taking place in America through Jewish social domination, immigration and policies designed to help minorities.
Anticipating ostracism at this liberal arts school, he had kept his racist views a secret, but he was outed.
Then Derek began his studies in medieval history at New College, Florida. Anticipating ostracism at this liberal arts school, he had kept his racist views a secret, but he was outed on the university’s student message board where his picture appeared with the caption “Have you seen this man?” Now everyone knew who he was – the scion of the White Nationalist movement. The ensuing outcry included verbal abuse and calls for his expulsion from the school.
In one of the only public comments he made at the time of his original announcement, Derek said, “It’s important to point out that the so-called activists who never spoke to me personally but chose to denounce me publicly, intimidate my friends, or otherwise try to peer pressure [me] did not have a positive impact...not to say that I don’t think those who felt marginalized or uncomfortable with me did not have the right to express their negative emotions – but these expressions did not act as catalysts or contribute to my changing mindset.”
But one New College student did make an impact. Matthew Stevenson, an orthodox Jew, wondered if Derek had ever met a Jew, and if doing so might change his mind about them. Every Friday night Matthew invited his diverse college friends over for kiddush, a Shabbat meal and conversation. Derek, who was being shunned by everyone at New College so much so that he had special permission to live off campus, decided to accept the invitation and went back week after week where for the first time in his life he was faced with diversity. Lively, but warm and eye-opening debates ensued and gradually Derek broke free of the prison of his own mindset.
Matthew and Derek
The only person to show him any kindness, the only one to reach out to him in friendship, was Matthew – who as a Jew was a ‘usurper’, as his father had always called their Jewish neighbours. He had always believed “Jews must go,” leaving America to its rightful inhabitants, the white race. Derek had justified his views with “logic”, the biological differences between races, (the stuff of Mengele’s experiments) but now that he had actually met a Jew – sat at his Shabbat table and liked him – it was harder to feel that old prejudice. He started doing his own research.
Derek began to relate to others as human beings, not as faceless representatives of their respective races.
David Duke theorised that Derek was suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”, because he had developed empathy for his liberal academic captors. He’s half right. Derek simply developed empathy. He began to relate to others as human beings, not as faceless representatives of their respective races. He began to see and appreciate individuality. And he did all this because Matthew Stevenson treated him as a fellow human being, worthy of kindness, made in the image of God.
“It is inaccurate and outrageous to talk about people of Jewish descent as ‘the enemy’ of anyone,” Derek wrote in 2013. His transformation is a beacon of hope for humanity revealing a recipe for overcoming prejudice and hate: kindness, dialogue and diversity and maybe just a touch of homemade chicken soup.