January 1, 2017

ESCAPING THE BUBBLE:

The white flight of Derek Black (Eli Saslow, Oct. 15th, 2016, Washington Post)

At first they knew nothing about him, and Derek tried to keep it that way. New College was in Sarasota, three hours across the state, and it was the first time Derek had lived away from home. He attended an introductory college meeting about diversity and concluded that the quickest way to be ostracized was to proclaim himself a racist. He decided not to mention white nationalism on campus, at least until he had made some friends.

Most of the other students in his dorm were college freshmen, and as a 21-year-old transfer student, Derek already had a car and a legal ID to buy beer. The qualities that had once made him seem quirky -- shoulder-length red hair, the cowboy hat he wore, a passion for medieval re-enactment -- made him a good fit for New College, where many of the 800 students were a little bit weird. He forged his own armor and dressed as a knight for Halloween. He watched zombie movies with students from his dorm, a group that included a Peruvian immigrant and an Orthodox Jew.

Maybe they were usurpers, as his father had said, but Derek also kind of liked them, and gradually he went from keeping his convictions quiet to actively disguising them. When another student mentioned that he had been reading about the racist implications of "Lord of the Rings" on a website called Stormfront, Derek pretended he had never heard of it.

Meanwhile, early each weekday morning, he would go outside and call in to his radio show. He told friends these were regular calls home to his parents, and in a way, that was true. Every morning, it was Derek and his father, cued in by music from Merle Haggard's "I'm a White Boy." Derek often repeated his belief that whites were being wiped out -- "a genocide in our own country," he said. He told listeners the problem was "massive, nonwhite immigration." He said Obama was an "anti-white radical." He said white voters were "just waiting for a politician who actually talks about all the ways whites are being stepped on." He said it was the "critical fight of our lifetime." Then he hung up and went back to the dorm to play Taylor Swift songs on his guitar or to take one of the college's sailboats onto Sarasota Bay.

He left after one semester to study abroad in Germany, because he wanted to learn the language. He kept in touch with New College partly through a student message board, known as the forum, whose updates were automatically sent to his email.

One night in April 2011, Derek noticed a message posted to all students at 1:56 a.m. It was written by someone Derek didn't know -- an upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online when he stumbled across a familiar face.

"Have you seen this man?" the message read, and beneath those words was a picture that was unmistakable. The red hair. The cowboy hat.

"Derek black: white supremacist, radio host...new college student???" the post read. "How do we as a community respond?"

By the time Derek returned to campus for the next semester, more than a thousand responses had been written to that post. It was the biggest message thread in the history of a school that Derek now wanted badly to avoid. He returned to Sarasota, applied for permission to live outside of required student housing and rented a room a few miles away.

A few of his friends from the previous year emailed to say they felt betrayed, and strangers sometimes flipped him off from a safe distance on campus. But, for the most part, Derek avoided public spaces, and other students mostly stared or left him alone, even as their speculation about him continued on the forum.

"Maybe he's trying to get away from a life he didn't choose."

"He chooses to be a racist public figure. We choose to call him a racist in public."

"I just want this guy to die a painful death along with his entire family. Is that too much to ask?"

"I'd like to see Derek Black respond to all of this. ..."

Instead of replying, Derek read the forum and used it as motivation to plan a conference for white nationalists in East Tennessee. "Victory through Argumentation: Verbal tactics for anyone white and normal," he wrote in the invitation. He had spoken at several conferences, including the one in Memphis, but only now did he feel compelled to create another event as white nationalism continued to spread. The white genocide idea he had been championing had finally become a fixture of conservative radio. David Duke had started trying to build a relationship with "our friends and allies in the tea party." Donald Trump had riveted the alt-right with his investigation into Obama's birth certificate, and one Gallup poll suggested that only 38 percent of Americans "definitely" believed Obama was born in the United States.

"A critical juncture to keep increasing the profile of our movement," Derek said on the radio, so he registered 150 attendees and scheduled speeches by his father, Duke and other separatist icons.

Another New College student learned about the conference and posted details on the forum, where gradually a new way of thinking had begun to emerge.

"Ostracizing Derek won't accomplish anything," one student wrote.

"We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights."

"Who's clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy's mind?"

One of Derek's acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek's radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.

"What are you doing Friday night?" he wrote.

Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic -- anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.

Matthew had spent a few weeks debating whether it was a good idea. He and Derek had lived near each other in the dorm, but they hadn't spoken since Derek was exposed on the forum. Matthew, who almost always wore a yarmulke, had experienced enough anti-Semitism in his life to be familiar with the KKK, David Duke and Stormfront. He went back and read some of Derek's posts on the site from 2007 and 2008: "Jews are NOT white." "Jews worm their way into power over our society." "They must go."

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek's thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. "Maybe he'd never spent time with a Jewish person before," Matthew remembered thinking.

It was the only social invitation Derek had received since returning to campus, so he agreed to go. The Shabbat meals had sometimes included eight or 10 students, but this time only a few showed up. "Let's try to treat him like anyone else," Matthew remembered instructing them.

Derek arrived with a bottle of wine. Nobody mentioned white nationalism or the forum, out of respect for Matthew. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next, until after a few months, nobody felt all that threatened, and the Shabbat group grew back to its original size.

On the rare occasions when Derek directed conversation during those dinners, it was about the particulars of Arabic grammar, or marine aquatics, or the roots of Christianity in medieval times. He came across as smart and curious, and mostly he listened. He heard a Peruvian immigrant tell stories about attending a high school that was 90 percent Hispanic. He asked Matthew about his opinions on Israel and Palestine. They were both still wary of each other: Derek wondered whether Matthew was trying to get him drunk so he would say offensive things that would appear on the forum; Matthew wondered whether Derek was trying to cultivate a Jewish friend to protect himself against charges of anti-Semitism. But they also liked each other, and they started playing pool at a bar near campus.

Some members of the Shabbat group gradually began to ask Derek about his views, and he occasionally clarified them in conversations and emails throughout 2011 and 2012. He said he was pro-choice on abortion. He said he was against the death penalty. He said he didn't believe in violence or the KKK or Nazism or even white supremacy, which he insisted was different from white nationalism. He wrote in an email that his only concern was that "massive immigration and forced integration" was going to result in a white genocide. He said he believed in the rights of all races but thought each was better off in its own homeland, living separately.

"You have never clarified, Derek," one of his Shabbat friends wrote to him. "You've never said, 'Hey all, this is what I do believe and this is what I don't.' It's not the job of someone who's potentially scared/intimidated by someone else to approach that person to see if they are in fact scary/intimidating."

"I guess I only value the opinions of people I know," Derek wrote back, and now he was beginning to count his Shabbat friends among those he knew and respected. "You're naturally right that I deemphasize my own role," he wrote to them.

He decided early in his final year at New College to finally respond on the forum. He wanted his friends on campus to feel comfortable, even if he still believed some of their homelands were elsewhere. He sat at a coffee shop and began writing his post, softening his ideology with each successive draft. He no longer thought the endpoint of white nationalism was forced deportation for nonwhites, but gradual self-deportation, in which nonwhites would leave on their own. He didn't believe in self-deportation right now, at least not for his friends, but just eventually, in concept.

"It's been brought to my attention that people might be scared or intimidated or even feel unsafe here because of things said about me," he began. "I wanted to try to address these concerns publicly, as they absolutely should not exist. I do not support oppression of anyone because of his or her race, creed, religion, gender, socioeconomic status or anything similar."

The forum post, intended only for the college, was leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which kept a public "Intelligence File" on Derek and other racist leaders, and the group emailed Derek for clarification. Was he disavowing white nationalism? "Your views are now quite different from what many people thought," the email read.

Derek received the message while vacationing in Europe during winter break. He was staying with Duke, who had started broadcasting his radio show from a part of Europe with lenient free-speech laws. "The tea party is taking some of these ideas mainstream," Duke said on a broadcast one morning. "Whites are finally coming around to my point of view," he said another day, and even if Derek now thought some of what Duke said sounded exaggerated or even alarming, the man was still his godfather. Derek wrote back to the SPLC from Duke's couch.

"Everything I said (on the forum) is true," he wrote. "I also believe in White Nationalism. My post and my racial ideology are not mutually exclusive concepts."

But the unstated truth was that Derek was becoming more and more confused about exactly what he believed. Sometimes he looked through posts on Stormfront, hoping to reaffirm his ideology, but now the message threads about Obama's birth certificate or DNA tests for citizenship just seemed bizarre and conspiratorial. He stopped posting on Stormfront. He began inventing excuses to get out of his radio show, leaving his father alone on the air each morning to explain why Derek wouldn't be calling in. He was preparing for a test. He was giving those liberal professors hell. Except sometimes what Derek was really doing was taking his kayak to the beach, so he could be alone to think.

He had always based his opinions on fact, and lately his logic was being dismantled by emails from his Shabbat friends. They sent him links to studies showing that racial disparities in IQ could largely be explained by extenuating factors like prenatal nutrition and educational opportunities. They gave him scientific papers about the effects of discrimination on blood pressure, job performance and mental health. He read articles about white privilege and the unfair representation of minorities on television news. One friend emailed: "The geNOcide against whites is incredibly, horribly insulting and degrading to real, actual, lived and experienced genocides against Jews, against Rwandans, against Armenians, etc."

"I don't hate anyone because of race or religion," Derek clarified on the forum.

"I am not a white supremacist," he wrote.

"I don't believe people of any race, religion or otherwise should have to leave their homes or be segregated or lose any freedom."

"Derek," a friend responded. "I feel like you are a representative of a movement you barely buy into. You need to identify with more than 1/50th of a belief system to consider it your belief system."

He was taking classes in Jewish scripture and German multiculturalism during his last year at New College, but most of his research was focused on medieval Europe. He learned that Western Europe had begun not as a great society of genetically superior people but as a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn't find them anywhere. "We basically just invented it," he concluded.

"Get out of this," one of his Shabbat friends emailed a few weeks after Derek's graduation in May 2013, urging Derek to publicly disavow white nationalism. "Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has."

Derek stayed near campus to housesit for a professor after graduation, and he began to consider making a public statement. He knew he no longer believed in white nationalism, and he had made plans to distance himself from his past by changing part of his name and moving across the country for graduate school. His instinct was to slip away quietly, but his advocacy had always been public -- a legacy of radio shows, Internet posts, TV appearances, and an annual conference on racial tactics.

He was still considering what to do when he returned home to visit his parents later that summer. His father was tracking the rise of white nationalism on cable TV, and his parents were talking about "enemies" and "comrades" in the "ongoing war," but now it sounded ridiculous to Derek. He spent the day rebuilding windows with them, which was one of Derek's quirky hobbies that his parents had always supported. They had bought his guitar and joined in his medieval re-enactments. They had paid his tuition at the liberal arts college where he had Shabbat dinners. They had taught him, most of all, to be independent and ideological, and to speak his beliefs even when doing so resulted in backlash.

He left the house that night and went to a bar. He took out his computer and began writing a statement.

Posted by at January 1, 2017 9:34 AM

  

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