Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow ventured to Hobart and William Smith Colleges to retell the transformative story of a young white nationalist who eventually expelled his racist beliefs by attending higher education on Thursday.
Inside a well-packed Albright Auditorium, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Genocide and Human Rights Symposium that 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” within the mainstream political discourse and he hopes that the symposium can “retrieve the weight back” and ultimately restore a sense seriousness and respect for the term that has accosted the lives of millions from around the globe.
Once Saslow was handed the microphone, the multi-time Pulitzer Prize finalist initially stated 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 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 towards children that was visited more than a half-million times and promoted white nationalist sentiments on the digital platform.
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 within 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 to a wider political audience of whites who felt disenfranchised and discriminated against with their own grievances to air.
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, he 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 argues that transformations do not simply happen and necessitate time.
Saslow characterizes Black’s decision to escape from white nationalism and separating of familial ties not as a singular choice or moment but as a continual choice that must be challenged and renegotiated for the rest of his life.
He also admits that this course of action takes a true sense of courage, but mentions that Black should not be valorized as a hero for ending his racist behavior.
Since then, Black has conducted scholarship at The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and become a prominent antiracist figure.
Although it is clear to Saslow that white nationalists do not acknowledge President Donald Trump as one of their own, he still believes that Trump’s rhetorical appeals embolden the white nationalist movement and even fuels 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 sees that the space for extremism in the politics is growing and hard to deny 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 for Black has now been how he believes that an increased number of terrorist attacks in places like El Paso, the mobilization of activists in Charlottesville and President Trump’s rhetoric were messages taken “fresh off the pages of Stormfront,” as Saslow described.
Even Saslow grapples with writing the book and its overall tone, one which 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 the nation.
Saslow acknowledges that Black’s transformation was a form of “real change” and 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 HWS students will carry this mantle forward in an effort to “devote ourselves to antiracism.”
“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.
– Reporting & Photos by Gabriel Pietrorazio
An undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pietrorazio has written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut and Finger Lakes Times in Geneva, New York. He’s currently a reporter for FL1 News, and can be reached at email@example.com.