On the night in 2008 that Barack Obama was elected president, the American neo-Nazi website Stormfront got such an unprecedented volume of traffic that its server crashed. A Florida-based collection of blogs, chat rooms, streaming radio, and even a lonely-hearts page (for heterosexual white Americans only), Stormfront has long brought together several strands of racism. Its denunciation of traditional targets of far-right hate—Jews, blacks, nonwhite immigrants—is now interwoven with rants against new versions of the old ones: Muslims, globalists, George Soros. The public can access most of the site, registered members all of it.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the country’s leading monitor of hate groups, Stormfront was for many years “the most trafficked white supremacist website online.” (Far-right activists take pride in such rankings and follow the SPLC’s website closely.) A long string of violent people have been Stormfront members, among them Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers, in Norway in 2011.
The website has been run since its founding in 1995 by Don Black, a veteran white nationalist, as supremacists prefer to call themselves these days. As grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, Black organized marches in defense of Robert Chambliss, who was convicted in 1977 for his part in the 1963 bombing in Birmingham that killed four African-American girls. Black then spent three years in federal prison for joining a bizarre plot to carry out an armed takeover of the Caribbean island of Dominica and turn it into a white utopia. He created Stormfront with the computer skills he learned behind bars.
For many years, the website was essentially a family operation, and an unusual family it was. Don’s wife, Chloe, had been formerly married to the country’s most prominent Klansman, ex–Louisiana state legislator David Duke, with whom she had two daughters. Duke and Don Black had been close friends since they met as teenagers in the white supremacy movement. Several years after Chloe divorced Duke, she married Black, with Duke serving as best man. Duke remained close to the family, becoming godfather to Chloe and Don’s son, Derek, and often joining the household for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Don helped to raise the two daughters Chloe had had with Duke and helped with Duke’s Klan activities and political campaigns. Animated at work by the politics of hate, this peculiar blended family could not have had a more amicable life at home.
Young Derek Black, who was mostly homeschooled (his parents thought there were too many dark-skinned children in the public schools), turned out to be something of a child prodigy. He was adept at helping with the technical side of the busy website, and before he was even a teenager he created a section of it for white nationalist children. Among other things, they could play a video game that included shooting watermelons at black people. From an early age, he had his own radio show on the site, a mixture of music and racist talk. As the show expanded from two to five days a week, he shared hosting duties with his father, and it became the Don and Derek Black Show. Don groomed Derek as his heir apparent, proudly bringing his bright young son to join him onstage at white nationalist conferences.
As a teenager, Derek crafted a shrewd and effective shift in Stormfront’s rhetoric to echo the way African-Americans, Latinos, and women talked about their experience of oppression. Whites are a declining proportion of the US population, Derek told his radio listeners, and instead of fighting against anyone else, they are “simply trying to protect and preserve an endangered heritage and culture.” Otherwise there will be an “inevitable genocide by mass immigration and forced assimilation.” Enhanced by Derek’s computer savvy in spreading memes, this was a brilliant pivot: it allowed hate groups to claim that they were not preaching hate but bravely advocating for people in danger. Who could be against preventing genocide? Don Black swiftly adopted his son’s arguments and banned racial slurs, Nazi insignia, and outright advocacy of violence from Stormfront. Some tradition-minded hard-liners objected, but Derek’s reframing of white nationalist rhetoric spread through the movement, and Stormfront’s traffic increased dramatically.
When Derek got straight A’s at the local community college, his parents urged him to transfer to a four-year school, and in 2010 he enrolled at New College of Florida, the honors college of the state university system. Don was confident that Derek would be a useful spy in the enemy’s camp—and perhaps even a recruiter. “It’s not like any of these little commies are going to impact his thinking,” Don responded to a skeptical caller on Stormfront radio. “If anyone is going to be influenced here, it will be them.”
Curious, personable, and a good guitar player, Derek made friends at college easily. At first he seemed to think nothing of it that one was an immigrant from Peru and that another, who became his girlfriend, was Jewish. After all, his mentor David Duke had once befriended members of a small Orthodox Jewish sect. If you were a white nationalist, that didn’t mean other races couldn’t have their nationalisms too—as long as they soon ended up in their own separate territories.
Derek successfully compartmentalized his life for many months, slipping away from his dorm to a secluded patch of lawn each day to call in to the Stormfront radio show and join his father in decrying the pollution of white America by blacks, Jews, Muslims, and Hispanics. Finally some students realized that the pleasant, likable Derek Black on their campus was the same Derek Black whose voice and postings appeared on a neo-Nazi website. They argued about what to do. Some publicly shunned him. Others felt that respectful, engaged friendship might lead somewhere. After all, he was such good company and had become a regular at Shabbat dinners in the dorm room of an Orthodox student.
Derek tried to steer the conversation at such occasions away from politics, but when pressed, he argued that white nationalism harmed no one else, and, after all, didn’t the rising tide of immigration mean that white people were under threat of being marginalized? He was as fluent in debate as he was friendly, and arguments didn’t intimidate him; at Stormfront he’d been dealing with hate mail for a decade. Derek knew that Duke had faced outrage from liberals when in college himself, but nonetheless kept speaking out. Duke had gained great confidence and a sense of liberation by expressing his beliefs when surrounded by people who fervently opposed them. But one sign of change in Derek’s life now appeared: he told his father that his studies kept him too busy to continue working on the radio show.
Rising Out of Hatred, the Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow’s account of Derek Black’s slow transformation, is a superb piece of reporting: suspenseful, moving, and compassionate. Ultimately, it is a story of sin and redemption. Saslow seems to have persuaded almost everyone involved to talk to him and to share revealing e-mails and text messages. Some of the messages came from Derek’s new girlfriend at college, Allison Gornik, who was deeply disturbed that the boy she had come to love remained connected to a movement she found repulsive. Derek felt paralyzed. His way of escaping the conflicting pressures from her and his college friends on one side and his family on the other was to plan to go to graduate school in medieval studies.
Still, Allison pushed him: Derek was on record online as calling for the expulsion of Jews from the country, as saying that “the Civil War was such a glaring act of oppression to White America,” and much more. You have to do something public, Allison told him in an eloquent e-mail. “You need to have a statement—something concrete, something you can point to and say no, look, I have publicly renounced this.”
In 2012, when Derek was still in college, forty-year-old Wade Michael Page, a registered user of Stormfront for more than ten years, killed six people and wounded four more at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in the name of white supremacy. Derek, while no longer appearing on the radio show, still occasionally pitched in to help at the website, where he now posted photos of his father talking about the Wisconsin killings. Don Black termed Page’s murders “counterproductive” but added, “We think Sikhs belong back in Punjab.”
As he began to doubt the gospel he had been brought up on, Derek did not dare confront his family. They knew he had little time for movement activities while in college, but they certainly had no objection to his plan to pursue medieval studies. White nationalists like to think of themselves as the noble descendants of Vikings and knights in armor who pushed the barbarian hordes out of Europe. With both college and graduate degrees, his parents felt, Derek could take the movement to new heights.
Finally, as Allison’s urging continued, Derek gave up trying to live in two worlds. He sat down at his computer and wrote a long, forceful statement that apologized for the hurt his past activities had caused to Jews and people of color, and that condemned every aspect of white nationalism. “I am sorry for the damage done by my actions,” he wrote. “I realize not all will instantly believe me, or may perceive this as a seemingly abrupt change when it has been instead a gradual awakening process. I understand that my words don’t suddenly heal all wounds.”
At first he was not sure where to send this statement, but before long it became clear. “There was only one venue,” Saslow writes, “that Derek thought made sense—the one publication read by white nationalists, social justice advocates, and the mainstream press. It was where his renunciation would resonate the loudest.” He attached the letter to an e-mail that said “Please publish in full,” addressed it to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and hit “send.”
While writing a magazine profile some years back, I spent a few days with another defector from the world of white supremacy. Floyd Cochran had been the national spokesman for the neo-Nazi organization Aryan Nations.1 His background was different from the close and stable family in which Derek Black grew up. Cochran’s parents quarreled; he ran away from home as a child, lived for several years in foster homes, and spent months in county jails for bad checks, drunk driving, and breaking and entering. But for a time, he found a close and supportive community in the fortified Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho, where children were hugged, men enjoyed military ranks, uniforms, and ceremonies, and women did all the cooking. “We used to send people into the cities to pick up homeless kids,” he told me. “You give a homeless kid some food and a place to stay and tell him that you love him, you can do a lot of things with that kid. One of the strongest recruiting tactics I had was to tell people, ‘We are your family.’”
Derek Black didn’t have to search to find such a community; he was born into one. In his story, what surprised me was the unexpected strength of its bonds, and how far they extended beyond his immediate family. As viciously as white nationalists regarded people of other colors and religions, they could be kind to one another. Derek’s father, writes Saslow,
was revered for his loyalty and generosity. He had once put his family home up as collateral to pay the jail bond for a young skinhead. Another time, he allowed an itinerant Stormfront chat room moderator to park his trailer in the family driveway and live on their property for two years.
When Don took Derek along to white nationalist gatherings, driving thousands of miles, they stayed with friends in the movement, whom Don proudly called “an extended family of comrades.” They slept in people’s houses and trailers and in a KKK compound in Arkansas; a Mississippi comrade taught Derek how to catch fireflies. What made the community so strong? Partly it was the clarity and simplicity of their beliefs. And partly it was the shared sense of being victimized outsiders. One of the strange successes of the white nationalist movement—and something well understood and brilliantly used by Donald Trump—is that even in a nation where the majority of people are white, this movement speaks in the aggrieved tones of a beleaguered minority.
The summer before he went away to college, Derek took a young niece on a four-week road trip across the country, again staying almost everywhere with other white nationalists, few of whom he had even met before. But when he e-mailed them, they happily welcomed a fellow believer from a website they followed, gave him and his niece dinner and beds for the night, took them on hikes, and showed them a new city.
Reading about these trips reminded me, oddly, of someone from the other side of the political spectrum, the Industrial Workers of the World organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Although representing a far different and more inclusive creed, she describes her journeys across the United States as a “Wobbly” more than a century ago in almost the same terms:
In those days no traveling Socialist or IWW speaker went to a hotel. It was customary to stay at a local comrade’s house. This was partly a matter of economy…. But, more than all else, it was a comradeship, even if you slept with one of the children or on a couch in the dining room. It would have been considered cold and unfriendly to allow a speaker to go off alone to a hotel…. They heard about other parts of the country while the speaker could learn all about the conditions in that area.2
That electric sense of “comradeship” existed for a time in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and in the crusade against the Vietnam War that followed. Sometimes it flourishes in the euphoria of an election campaign—I have slept on an unfamiliar couch or two during one of those—but that’s a community that usually dissipates after election day. Would you or I offer a meal and a bed for the night to a young stranger and his niece who called or e-mailed out of the blue, just on the strength of his being a fellow liberal, a Democrat, a socialist, or a New York Review subscriber? I doubt it. Building a comradeship of men and women who care passionately about social and economic justice, and who know that the greatest threat to us all is not people of other colors or religions but global warming, will not be as easy as building one of men and women who share an all-encompassing sense of victimhood. But build it we must.
Stormfront’s online radio offerings still feature Don Black and David Duke, and the website still broadcasts its message that Jews, Muslims, black people, and immigrants belong elsewhere. Recent posts include praise for the gunman who killed fifty worshipers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, and a user saying he found “quite rational” the manifesto of the shooter who killed twenty-two people in an El Paso Walmart in August.
The redemption story of Stormfront’s former crown prince has been a quiet one. Derek Black still sees his parents, although there are deep strains when they talk politics. He has chosen to continue his graduate studies in history rather than, as so often happens in America, to make a new career out of his extraordinary change of heart. But he did allow himself to be interviewed on radio and television several times when Saslow’s book appeared, soberly taking responsibility for the violence he had helped stimulate earlier in his life, and saying that he was not entitled to any praise merely for having ceased preaching hate. In one TV appearance, he mentioned that his parents were now frequent viewers of Fox News: “My family watches the Tucker Carlson show once and then watches it on the replay because they feel that he is making the white nationalist talking points better than they have and they’re trying to get some tips.”