Barely a year has passed since violence incited by white nationalists led to tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death of Heather Heyer. That anniversary makes Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist all the more timely and important. With the skill of a novelist, Saslow tells the extraordinary story of how the “rightful heir to America’s white nationalist movement” came to repudiate his racist heritage.
If anyone could lay claim to an impeccable pedigree in prejudice, it would be Derek Black, the son of the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who founded Stormfront, a vicious internet hate site, and the godson of white supremacist David Duke. Starting as a teenager, Black shared a microphone with his father on a radio talk show that relentlessly spewed venom against black people, Jews and other minorities.
But Black’s life began its radical transformation when he enrolled at New College of Florida, a small liberal arts institution in Sarasota, in 2010. Not long after his arrival, he befriended Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jewish student who invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners to observe the Jewish Sabbath. On one of those occasions, Black met Stevenson’s roommate, Allison Gornik, who became the principal agent for upending Black’s worldview.
Drawing upon hundreds of hours of interviews with Black, his family and friends, Saslow describes how Gornik methodically engaged Black, who proved to be a bright, intellectually curious young man, in conversations. These discussions exposed the flawed sources and logic of the information and fallacious thinking that fueled Black’s bigotry and his fears of a white genocide. Even more significantly, she patiently persuaded him to make amends for his racist past and the harm he’d inflicted.
Nothing in this thoughtful account suggests the conversion Black experienced is likely to become widespread among his former compatriots, but it’s reassuring to learn of one instance in which reason, hope and love prevailed over hate.