News & Politics

Eli Saslow on the Long, Slow Process of Changing a Racist’s Beliefs

The Washington Post writer shares what he learned while researching his new book, "Rising Out of Hatred."

Saslow. Photograph by Joanna Ceciliani.

In 2011, students at New College of Florida discovered that their classmate Derek Black was the heir to a white nationalist empire–his father, Don Black, had started the racist forum Stormfront, and his godfather was David Duke. Remarkably, some of the students began to try to engage Derek Black about his beliefs, and he eventually renounced white nationalism. Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow first told Black’s story in 2016 and recently published an extended account of his transformation in an excellent book called Rising Out of Hatred.

Saslow, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for a series about how Americans living on food stamps, tackles this subject with sensitive and extraordinarily detailed reporting that echoes the patience Black’s friends showed as they worked on him. We spoke on the phone about how he wrote it.

How did this story find you?

A little bit sideways. I was writing about Dylan Roof for the Post, and he had spent time on Stormfront. I went on Stormfront to try to kind of understand the stuff that Dylan Roof was reading before he went into that church in Charleston. On the board at that time they were saying gross celebratory things about Dylan Roof. But the biggest threat on the message board was about Derek.

How did you get in touch with him?

I knew that he had changed part of his name and he’d moved across the country but I knew what he was studying, and I knew that he was in graduate school. You know, high-level medieval [history] programs, there just aren’t that many of them. Eventually I found, instead of Derek Black, a Roland Black in a medieval program at Western Michigan and just kind of tracked him down through Nexis. I think I found his school email address, wrote to him, he didn’t respond. Eventually I called a number I found on Nexis for his landlord. And at that point Derek wrote back saying, Hey, please stop calling people, I’m not ready to do this. I think the thing that compelled him to change his mind is that he saw in the course of that next year just all of the talking points that he had you know helped put into play emerging all around him. He came to the conclusion that he could not he could not run from this.

You eventually got in pretty deep with his family and network of friends.

Particularly for the book it felt like it was really important that it come from multiple perspectives–not just Derek’s story but also the story of people who this ideology hurts, and the people who changed his mind, and the people who are still working to spread this shit. Some of that was built very slowly over time. The first day that I spent with Derek, he would talk about his friends with code names. But just by showing up again and again and again, you know, trust sort of built out pretty quickly. If Derek hadn’t participated in the book I’m sure [his father] Don would not have talked in great detail. But I think in the end by talking to me about Derek, it’s like a conversation that he and Derek never had and never have never been able to have.

What I really needed from all these people was also not to talk to them about what had happened but, because I wanted this to be a story that felt immediate and intimate, I needed all of their Gchats and text messages and Facebook posts so the book could document the transformation in real time instead of me trying to pin down kind of what had happened. So I was really lucky with this book that the historical documentation was just so abundant. The fact that Stormfront is this massive archive of all these things that Derek had said. He and his dad had this radio show that was archived, two hours every day of them talking about stuff. All of that ended up being really important to, I think, I hope, making the book feel more intimate and closer to everyone in it.

Getting people to trust you sounds like it was the really difficult part of what you were trying to do, and that’s something I see again and again in your work. If you screwed something up, it would mean a lot more for them than it would for you.

I think I’ve gotten a lot better at understanding that the weight of these stories, and this book in their lives is a lot different than the weight of it in my life. Like when I finish, I’m going to figure out the next project. And you know for them this is, this is the story. And so thinking about fairness and, you know, just doing that ethically, It’s not just the more basic journalistic tenets of like making sure that everything is accurate and everything else. But it’s also, like, the fairness of figuring out, if you’re writing about somebody who might not be written about in depth again, you’re choosing where their story ends in the public space.

What kind of lessons does Derek’s story hold for people who didn’t grow up in such remarkable circumstances? Does it offer any instructions or a template for changing someone’s point of view?

The real problem is that a fairly significant number of white people hold a lot of these problematic beliefs. And the reason that white nationalists have been so effective is that they’ve like played to this false sense of grievance that exists in a fairly large portion of white America.

Of course Derek is an extreme case. He was the future heir to the movement and wound up so far on the other side. But I think some of the things that impacted his thinking and some of the ways people went about impacting his thinking are instructive. I think there’s this debate between civil resistance and civil discourse that seems very binary. And the truth is students who did both those things around Derek had a huge effect. The students who shut down the school and protested him, they they really made Derek see the full horrors of his beliefs in ways that he hadn’t before. They also left him isolated, so that when some did begin reaching out to him it had it had an impact.

But if I’m boiling it down to one lesson, it’s that the people who ended up directly influencing Derek’s thinking did it because they built relationships with him that were based not just on debating ideology. They became friends, and they became people who he liked and trusted, and then he was much more likely to look into their ideas. For me, anyway, the people in my family who certainly would never identify as white nationalists but do hold many problematic racial beliefs, I feel like, I’m not going to talk to this person about this because they’re never going to change their mind. But actually if anybody has a chance to to even make them question some of these ideas it’s probably me, because I’m a full person to them.

Man, that’s heavy. That really hits me, you know, thinking about people I’ve kind of let go. Even family members because I didn’t want to deal with their shit anymore.

I mean, I do the same thing. Because it’s exhausting to deal with this shit. And it also feels, you know right now in particular the country feels so polarized and like people’s ideas about this stuff seem so intractable that it’s tempting to just kind of throw up your hands and be like, Well, this person is never going to think differently about this stuff. There’s a lot about the book that is dark, but if there’s one thing that’s hopeful it’s that if the future heir to the White Nationalist Movement can forsake not just his ideology but everything about the first 23 years of his life and come out so far on the other end, it does feel like much smaller transformations, which are the things that are much more widely necessary in the country, are possible. I think we have to sort of give people space to change the way they think about things and be patient as that process is unfolding.

What’s your relationship with Derek like now?

Some people are like, Oh, are you and Derek friends? And to me the answer is it’s just so much more complicated than that. Because with a friend you’re asking them to confide in you, and then you keep it to yourself. And in this case, like, I’m asking him to confide in me and then I’m telling everybody or at least a small number of readers who will hopefully buy a book. So you know, it’s the power imbalance is so different than a friendship. I’m a reporter in his life and not a confidant. But mostly we’re close in the way that you become close to somebody if you’ve read thousands of pages of their college Gchats. But also, like you said, the book the book is much more complicated for him than it is for me because every time he goes out and talks about it that is also like a fresh wound to his family.

Have you been in touch with his family since the book came out?

Yeah, I have. Stormfront at first was sort of going crazy in the ways that you would expect it to go crazy. And it was interesting to see Don tamp it down by saying the book is factual. I think the thing that’s probably weird for for Don Black in particular about the book is that things the regular reader or I would think are totally damning of Don, like the fact that he holds these racist beliefs and tried to overthrow a tiny island nation and turn it into a white utopia, Don doesn’t think those things are damning. He’s like, Yup, that’s what I believe. I think what’s weirder and probably more uncomfortable is that often he has been written about like kind of a cardboard villain. And I think the fact that the book makes him vulnerable in ways where it’s a little bit more personal, in terms of his relationship with his kid and his pain over that, I think that part is strange for him. But hopefully what makes stories good and powerful is that people are super-complicated. Don Black is somebody who’s caused a huge amounts of pain and hurt in the world and continues to, but he also loves his kid. And he experienced this as essentially a death, you know. You have to hold those things at the same time and know that they’re both true.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. 

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.