Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by FingerLakes1.com.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow ventured to Hobart and William Smith Colleges Oct. 3 to retell the transformative story of a young white nationalist who eventually expelled his racist beliefs by attending higher education.
Inside a well-packed Albright Auditorium, community members gathered at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Genocide and Human Rights Symposium, which invited Saslow to speak through the generous donation and sponsorship of Dr. Edward Franks ’72.
In his book, titled Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Saslow recounts the life story of Derek Black, a prominent youth within the white nationalist movement and the godson of David Duke, an infamous Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter introduced the guest speaker and expressed that Black popularized the term “white genocide” in the mainstream political discourse. He hoped that the symposium could “retrieve the weight back” and ultimately restore a sense of seriousness and respect for the term that has accosted the lives of millions from around the globe, in the name of genocide.
Once Saslow was handed the microphone, he initially noted that the story he told through his reporting of Black took place at a not too “dissimilar college campus” from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
As a member of The Washington Post national staff, Saslow embeds himself for an extensive period of time among the places and peoples that he writes about in an attempt to understand how national news affects their lives.
When he was assigned to write about the Charleston shooter who attempted to start a race war after killing nine civilians inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this moment started Saslow’s story about uncovering Black after stumbling across his name in a thread on Stormfront, one of the largest racial hate site Internet forums.
“I decided as a reporter that I wanted to find Derek as well,” Saslow said.
He elaborated that the website was translated into four languages, gained hundreds of views from daily visitors and even had a dating site, all of which culminated into a “massive and inclusion community of racist ideas.”
Calling Black the “crown prince of the white nationalist movement,” Saslow clearly signaled that this was not just a catchy moniker to sell copies of his book.
Like his father, Black also learned to code but at the age of 10 and created a white pride site tailored toward children that promoted white nationalist sentiments on the digital platform and was visited more than a half-million times.
He also developed a 24-hour daily radio network for Stormfront and even gained a slot on the mainstream airwaves in Florida.
By the age of 18, Black swiftly rose to prominence in the white nationalist coalition, often serving as their keynote speaker for gatherings.
But most of all, in Saslow’s opinion, Black’s contributions to repackaging the movement’s mission by recoding language from overtly racist comments into false racialized myths on Stormfront insidiously reinforced the power of white nationalism, while expanding its influence for a wider political audience of whites who felt disenfranchised and discriminated against.
The New College of Florida, his story’s setting, was considered as the “ideological opposite to white nationalism,” and Saslow explained that the campus community felt threatened when they eventually found out that an enrolled college student was living a dual life by attending classes while simultaneously advancing the white nationalist cause within their midst.
“And into this space arrived the future heir to the white nationalism movement,” Saslow stated.
After spending hundreds of hours with Black, Saslow recognized him as intellectually curious and ambitious, too much for his own future’s sake, which led to him “investing in these ideas with disastrous consequences.”
It was through his ostracization from the campus and rebuilding of community through key relationships that eventually caused him to overcome his own closed-off upbringing and prejudices by encountering the faces and stories of difference.
Years later, Saslow still believes that Black felt culpable for his own actions after spewing falsehoods of hatred and racism, especially when trying to become more public about his past, even while posing a potential risk to himself.
Despite Black’s retreat from the racist ideology he once espoused, Saslow argued that transformations do not simply happen and necessitate time.
Saslow characterized Black’s decision to escape from white nationalism and separating of familial ties not as a singular choice or moment in time, but as a continual choice that must be challenged and renegotiated for the rest of his life.
Saslow also admitted that this course of action takes a true sense of courage but mentioned that Black should not be valorized as a hero by simply ending his racist behavior.
Since then, Black has conducted scholarship at The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and become a prominent anti-racist figure.
Although it is clear to Saslow that white nationalists do not acknowledge President Donald J. Trump as one of their own, he still believes that Trump’s rhetorical appeals embolden the white nationalist movement and even fuel his greater political base.
At one point, Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke told Saslow that “My life’s work is coming true. This is my platform. I’m just not the person who is at the head of it.”
Saslow now sees that the space for extremism in politics is growing and considers them as “a reenergized movement.”
“The language of Stormfront in many ways has become the language of a much more prominent political space,” Saslow said.
Since departing from his former ideology, the gravest concern that lingers on Black’s mind is whether his actions have incited an increased number of terrorist attacks in places like El Paso and the mobilization of alt-right activists in Charlottesville.
President Trump’s rhetoric includes messages taken “fresh off the pages of Stormfront,” as Saslow described.
Even Saslow expressed that he grappled with writing his book and its overall tone, one that invokes “real hope and real darkness.”
However, Saslow ultimately hopes that his book empowers readers to confront and fight insidious racism, which he considers to be at the core of this nation.
Saslow also acknowledged that Black’s transformation was a form of “real change” that should inspire others to continue in the struggle despite real threats posed by the rise of white nationalism in America.
His final message was simple and memorable: he hopes that students at the Colleges shall carry this mantle forward in an effort to “devote ourselves to anti-racism.”
“I think the essential thing is like the students at New College, we all avoid apathy and make the case to do this work, and I hope that many of you will take up that mantle and join me in some small way,” he ended.
Long after stepping away from the speaking spotlight, Saslow stayed behind, answering questions from the audience and speaking with many vocal students once the symposium formally concluded.
Following his lecture at the Colleges, the Herald reconnected with Saslow as he shared his book’s most valuable lesson for readers.
“I think the most valuable lesson from the book is that we can all make the decision to invest ourselves in changing the people and structures around us,” Saslow stated.
For Saslow, the stakes are too serious at this moment in time, and being silent is simply not an option when confronting racism, those who foster hate and even transforming them for the better.
“At this moment, when the stakes are so high, being silent is being complicit. We have to work to confront racist ideas and transform the people who hold them,” he continued.
On the brighter side, Saslow was cheerfully satisfied with his first visit at the Colleges after meeting students, faculty and staff.
“I loved visiting Hobart and William Smith and was really taken with the campus, the students, and the level of engagement,” he said.
Saslow also did not shy away from disclosing how he misses having dinner on campus at the Abbe Center for Jewish Life before his lecture.
If Saslow ever returns to the Finger Lakes, possibly while visiting his alma mater in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, it seems that he will surely stop by for a Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings.
“Based on the company and the food, I wish I was a regular at those Abbe Center shabbats,” he concluded.