Derek Black, 27, was following in his father’s footsteps as a white nationalist leader until he began to question the movement’s ideology. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Their public conference had been interrupted by a demonstration march and a bomb threat, so the white nationalists decided to meet secretly instead. They slipped past police officers and protesters into a hotel in downtown Memphis. The country had elected its first black president just a few days earlier, and now in November 2008, dozens of the world’s most prominent racists wanted to strategize for the years ahead.
“The fight to restore White America begins now,” their agenda read.
The room was filled in part by former heads of the Ku Klux Klan and prominent neo-Nazis, but one of the keynote speeches had been reserved for a Florida community college student who had just turned 19. Derek Black was already hosting his own radio show. He had launched a white nationalist website for children and won a local political election in Florida. “The leading light of our movement,” was how the conference organizer introduced him, and then Derek stepped to the lectern.
“The way ahead is through politics,” he said. “We can infiltrate. We can take the country back.”
Years before Donald Trump launched a presidential campaign based in part on the politics of race and division, a group of avowed white nationalists was working to make his rise possible by pushing its ideology from the radical fringes ever closer to the far conservative right. Many attendees in Memphis had transformed over their careers from Klansmen to white supremacists to self-described “racial realists,” and Derek Black represented another step in that evolution.
He never used racial slurs. He didn’t advocate violence or lawbreaking. He had won a Republican committee seat in Palm Beach County, Fla., where Trump also had a home, without ever mentioning white nationalism, talking instead about the ravages of political correctness, affirmative action and unchecked Hispanic immigration.
He was not only a leader of racial politics but also a product of them. His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, with 300,000 users and counting. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots, and Duke had become Derek’s godfather. They had raised Derek at the forefront of the movement, and some white nationalists had begun calling him “the heir.”
Now Derek spoke in Memphis about the future of their ideology. “The Republican Party has to be either demolished or taken over,” he said. “I’m kind of banking on the Republicans staking their claim as the white party.”
A few people in the audience started to clap, and then a few more began to whistle, and before long the whole group was applauding. “Our moment,” Derek said, because at least in this room there was consensus. They believed white nationalism was about to drive a political revolution. They believed, at least for the moment, that Derek would help lead it.
“Years from now, we will look back on this,” he said. “The great intellectual move to save white people started today.”
Don Black poses for a portrait earlier this month in Crossville, Tenn. Black established the white nationalist website Stormfront, which has grown to more than 300,000 users. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Eight years later, that future they envisioned in Memphis was finally being realized in the presidential election of 2016. Donald Trump was retweeting white supremacists. Hillary Clinton was making speeches about the rise of white hate and quoting David Duke, who had launched his own campaign for the U.S. Senate.
White nationalism had bullied its way toward the very center of American politics, and yet, one of the people who knew the ideology best was no longer anywhere near that center. Derek had just turned 27, and instead of leading the movement, he was trying to untangle himself not only from the national moment but also from a life he no longer understood.
From the very beginning, that life had taken place within the insular world of white nationalism, where there was never any doubt about what whiteness could mean in the United States. Derek had been taught that America was intended as a place for white Europeans and that everyone else would eventually have to leave. He was told to be suspicious of other races, of the U.S. government, of tap water and of pop culture. His parents pulled him out of public school in West Palm Beach at the end of third grade, when they heard his black teacher say the word “ain’t.” By then, Derek was one of only a few white students in a class of mostly Hispanics and Haitians, and his parents decided he would be better off at home.
“It is a shame how many White minds are wasted in that system,” Derek wrote shortly thereafter, on the Stormfront children’s website he built at age 10. “I am no longer attacked by gangs of non whites. I am learning pride in myself, my family and my people.”
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. (Courtesy of Derek Black)
Because he was home-schooled, white nationalism could become a focus of his education. It also meant he had the freedom to begin traveling with his father, who left for several weeks each year to speak at white nationalist conferences in the Deep South. Don Black had grown up in Alabama, where in the 1970s, he joined a group called the White Youth Alliance, led by David Duke, who at the time was married to Chloe. That relationship eventually dissolved, and years later, Don and Chloe reconnected, married and had Derek in 1989. They moved into Chloe’s childhood home in West Palm Beach to raise Derek along with Chloe’s two young daughters. There were Guatemalan immigrants living down the block and Jewish retirees moving into a condo nearby. “Usurpers,” Don sometimes called them, but Chloe didn’t want to move away from her aging mother in Florida, so Don settled for taking long road trips to the whitest parts of the South.
Don and Derek always stayed on those trips with Don’s friends from the white power movement, and soon Derek had heard many of their stories. There was the time his father, then 16, was shot in the chest while working on a segregationist campaign in Georgia. There was the day in 1981 when he and eight other extremists made plans to board a boat stocked with dynamite, automatic weapons and a Nazi flag. Their plan, called Operation Red Dog, was to take over the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica, but instead Don had been caught, arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. He learned some computer programming in federal prison and eventually launched Stormfront in 1995 under the motto: “White Pride World Wide.”
Over the years, his website attracted all kinds of extremists: skinheads, militia groups, terrorists and Holocaust deniers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, a handful of the people who posted on Stormfront had gone on to commit hate crimes, including killings. One message board user shot and wounded three children at a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles in 1999. Another killed his Jewish neighbor in 2000 in a town near Pittsburgh. “We attract too many sociopaths,” Don posted, and he decided that more moderation would give Stormfront greater mainstream credibility.
By then Stormfront had become his full-time job, even though he wasn’t making much money and the family was getting by on Chloe’s salary as an executive assistant. Each morning, she would go to work, and Don would go to his crowded desk in their single-story house, where he recruited authors and academics from the alternative right to post on his site.
In 2008, he banned slurs, Nazi symbols and threats of violence, even as other parts of his own language remained unchanged. He didn’t have friends so much as “comrades.” Everyone was either “with us” or “against us,” “sympathetic” or an “enemy,” so Derek strengthened his relationship with his father by becoming his greatest ideological ally.
Derek learned Web coding and designed the Stormfront site for children. He was interviewed about hate speech on Nickelodeon, daytime talk shows, HBO and in USA Today. “The devil child,” was how Don sometimes referred to him, with pride and affection.
But Don also read through nasty emails his son received from strangers who were offended by the Stormfront children’s page, and he began to worry about a 13-year-old who was becoming so familiar with the two-way transaction of prejudice and hate.
“You will rot in hell,” read one email, in 2002.
“I WISH you were in the same room as me right now,” read another. “You would have to eat through a straw, you low life scumbag.”
Don told Derek to stop checking his messages. He would later remember wondering: “Did I foist this onto him? Is he just doing this for me?” He asked Derek whether he wanted to shut down the children’s page, but Derek said the emails didn’t bother him. That was the enemy. Who cared what they thought?
Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Don Black, center, at the cross-burning climax of a Klan recruitment rally in 1982. Black would later leave the Klan and begin describing himself as a “white civil rights advocate” or a “racial realist.” (Bettmann Archive)
After that, Don began to see something different when he looked at his son: not just a child born into the movement but also an emerging leader, with drive and conviction that seemed entirely his own. Don had spent more than four decades waiting for whites to have a racial awakening in America, and now he began to think that the teenager living in his house could be a potential catalyst.
“All of my strengths without any of my weaknesses,” Don would later say about Derek back then. “He was smarter than me. He had more insight. He never held himself back.”
So many others in white nationalism had come to their conclusions out of anger and fear, but Derek tended to like most people he met, regardless of race. Instead, he sought out logic and science to confirm his worldview, reading studies from conservative think tanks about biological differences between races, IQ disparities and rates of violent crime committed by blacks against whites. He launched a daily radio show to share his views, and Don paid $275 each week to have it broadcast on the AM station in nearby Lake Worth. On the air, Derek helped popularize the idea of a white genocide, that whites were losing their culture and traditions to massive, nonwhite immigration. “If we say it a thousand times — ‘White genocide! We are losing control of our country!’ — politicians are going to start saying it, too,” he said. He repeated the idea in interviews, Stormfront posts and during his speech at the conference in Memphis, when he was at his most certain.
Derek finished high school, enrolled in community college and ran for a seat on the Republican committee, beating an incumbent with 60 percent of the vote. He decided he wanted to study medieval European history, so he applied to New College of Florida, a top-ranked liberal arts school with a strong history program.
“We want you to make history, not just study it,” Don and Chloe sometimes reminded him.
New College ranked as one of the most liberal schools in the state — “most pot-friendly, most gay-friendly,” Don explained on the radio — and to some white nationalists, it seemed a bizarre choice. Once, on the air, a friend asked Don whether he worried about sending his son to a “hotbed of multiculturalism,” and Don started to laugh.
“If anyone is going to be influenced here, it will be them,” he said. “Soon enough, the whole faculty and student body are going to know who they have in their midst.”
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?”
Derek Black speaks shortly after his election to the Republican Party’s executive committee in Palm Beach County, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
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.”
Former Ku Klux Klan leader and current U.S. Senate candidate David Duke campaigns in Louisiana. Duke acted as a godfather and a mentor to Derek Black during his rise in white nationalism. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
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.
“A large section of the community I grew up in believes strongly in white nationalism, and members of my family whom I respect greatly, particularly my father, have long been resolute advocates for that cause. I was not prepared to risk driving a wedge in those relationships.
“After a great deal of thought since then, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.
“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 continued to write for several more paragraphs before addressing an email to the SPLC, the group his father had considered a primary adversary for 40 years.
“Publish in full,” Derek instructed. Then he attached the letter and hit “send.”
Don Black poses for a portrait at a park Oct. 2, 2016, in Crossville, Tenn. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Don was at the computer the next afternoon searching Google when Derek’s name popped up in a headline on his screen. For a decade, Don had been typing “Stormfront” and “Derek Black” into the search bar a few times each week to track his son’s public rise in white nationalism. This particular story had been published by the SPLC, which Don had always referred to as the “Poverty Palace.”
“Activist Son of Key Racist Leader Renounces White Nationalism,” it read, and Don began to read the letter. It had phrases like “structural oppression,” “privilege,” “limited opportunity,” and “marginalized groups” — the kind of liberal-apologist language Don and Derek had often made fun of on the radio.
“You got hacked,” Don remembered telling Derek, once he reached him on the phone.
“It’s real,” Derek said, and then he heard the sound of his father hanging up.
For the next few hours, Don was in disbelief. Maybe Derek was pulling a prank on him. Maybe he still believed in white nationalism but just wanted an easier life.
Derek called back, and this time his mother answered. She said that she didn’t want to speak to him. She handed the phone to Don, and his voice was shaky and tearful. Derek had never heard him that way. “I can’t talk,” Don said, and he hung up again.
Later that night, Don logged on to the Stormfront message board. “I’m sure this will be all over the Net and our local media, so I’ll start here,” he wrote, posting a link to Derek’s letter. “I don’t want to talk to him. He says he doesn’t understand why we’d feel betrayed just because he announced his ‘personal beliefs’ to our worst enemies.”
For the next several days, Don couldn’t bring himself to post anything more. “I was a little depressed anyway, but at that point I wanted to quit everything,” he said later, remembering that time. “What’s the point? I didn’t do much of anything for probably 10 days. It was the worst event of my adult life.”
He logged back onto Stormfront a week later. “After a miserable seven days, I feel the need to vent,” he wrote. “I only know what Derek tells me, which has been baffling. I’ve decided he really believes this crap. Derek repeated his belief that family ties are separate from politics. I said that obviously wasn’t true with a family centered around political activism.”
Hundreds of posts quickly followed. Some offered Don condolences. Others said that Derek was a traitor or that Don could no longer be trusted, either. Don wrote a few posts in response, sometimes defending Derek and other times distancing himself, until after a few weeks it all hurt too much.
“I’m closing this thread,” Don wrote, finally, describing it as an “open wound.”
Derek returned home a few weeks later for his father’s birthday, even though his mother and his half-sisters had asked him not to come. “I think I might be getting disowned,” Derek had written to one college friend. But he was about to leave Florida for graduate school, and he wanted to say goodbye.
He arrived at his grandmother’s house for the party, and he would later remember how strange it felt when his half-sisters would barely acknowledge him. His mother was polite but cold. Don tried to invite Derek inside, but the rest of the family wanted him to leave. “I got uninvited to my own party,” Don later remembered. “They said if I wanted to see him, we both had to go.”
They left and went for a drive, first to the beach and then to a restaurant, where they sat at a booth near the back. Derek still had his dry sense of humor. He still made smart observations about politics and history. “Same old Derek,” Don concluded, after a few hours, and that fact surprised him. His grief had been so profound that he’d expected some physical manifestation of the loss. Instead, he found himself forgetting for several minutes at a time that Derek was now “living on the other side.”
Don asked Derek about the theories that had emerged on the Stormfront message thread. Was he just faking a change to have an easier career? Was this his way of rebelling?
When Derek denied those things, Don mentioned the theory he himself had come to believe — the one David Duke had posited in the first hours after Derek’s letter went public: Stockholm syndrome. Derek had become a hostage to liberal academia and then experienced empathy for his captors.
“That’s so patronizing,” Derek remembered saying. “How can I prove this is what I really believe?”
He tried to convince Don for a few hours at the restaurant. He told him about white privilege and repeated the scientific studies about institutionalized racism. He mentioned the great Islamic societies that had developed algebra and predicted a lunar eclipse. He said that now, as he recognized strains of white nationalism spreading into mainstream politics, he felt accountable. “It’s not just that I was wrong. It’s that it caused real damage,” he remembered saying.
“I can’t believe I’m arguing with you, of all people, about racial realities,” Don remembered telling him.
The restaurant was closing, and they were no closer to an understanding. Derek went to sleep at his grandmother’s house. Then he woke up early and started driving across the country alone.
Derek Black is pictured Sept. 25, 2016. “It’s scary to know that I helped spread this stuff, and now it’s out there,” he told a friend, alluding to the ideology he once promoted. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Every day since then, Derek had been working to put distance between himself and his past. He was still living across the country after finishing his master’s degree, and he was starting to learn Arabic to be able to study the history of early Islam. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in white nationalism since his defection, aside from occasional calls home to his parents. Instead, he’d spent his time catching up on aspects of pop culture he’d once been taught to discredit: liberal newspaper columns, rap music and Hollywood movies. He’d come to admire President Obama. He decided to trust the U.S. government. He started drinking tap water. He had taken budget trips to Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Nicaragua and Morocco, immersing himself in as many cultures as he could.
He joined a new online message group, this one for couch surfers, and he opened up his one-bedroom apartment to strangers looking for a temporary place to stay. It felt increasingly good to trust people — to try to interact without prejudice or judgment — and after a while, Derek began to feel detached from the person he had been.
But then came the election campaign of 2016, and suddenly the white nationalism Derek had been trying to unlearn was the unavoidable subtext to national debates over refugees, immigration, Black Lives Matter and the election itself. Late in August, Derek watched in his apartment as Hillary Clinton gave a major speech about the rise of racism. She explained how white supremacists had rebranded themselves as white nationalists. She referenced Duke and mentioned the concept of a “white genocide,” which Derek had once helped popularize. She talked about how Trump had hired a campaign manager with ties to the alt-right. She said: “A fringe movement has essentially taken over the Republican Party.”
It was the very same point Derek had spent so much of his life believing in, but now it made him feel both fearful for the country and implicated. “It’s scary to know that I helped spread this stuff, and now it’s out there,” he told one of his Shabbat friends.
He also wondered whether he would ever be able to completely detach himself from his past, when so much about it remained public. He was still occasionally recognized as a former racist in graduate school; still written into the will of a man he had befriended through white nationalism; still the godson of Duke; still the son of Chloe and Don.
Late this summer, for the first time in years, he traveled to Florida to see them. At a time of increasingly contentious rhetoric, he wanted to hear what his father had to say. They sat in the house and talked about graduate school and Don’s new German shepherd. But after a while, their conversation turned back to ideology, the topic they had always preferred.
Don, who usually didn’t vote, said he was going to support Trump.
Derek said he had taken an online political quiz, and his views aligned 97 percent with Hillary Clinton’s.
Don said immigration restrictions sounded like a good start.
Derek said he actually believed in more immigration, because he had been studying the social and economic benefits of diversity.
Don thought that would result in a white genocide.
Derek thought race was a false concept anyway.
They sat across from each other, searching for ways to bridge the divide. The bay was one block away. Just across from there was Mar-a-Lago, where Trump had lived and vacationed for so many years, once installing an 80-foot pole for a gigantic American flag.
“Who would have thought he’d be the one to take it mainstream?” Don said, and in a moment of so much division, it was the one point on which they agreed.