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The Journey of Derek Black – posted 11/11/2018

November 11, 2018 2 comments

Sometimes a story comes along that is so instructive and inspirational, it demands to be told. I think the story of Derek Black, who transformed from a top leader of the white nationalist movement to a committed anti-racist, is such a story.

Derek Black was not any routine, rank-and-file racist. He was the heir apparent to the American white nationalist movement. The son of Don Black, a long-time leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and the godson of David Duke, Derek had impeccable white nationalist movement credentials.

Yet, even though Derek was expected to become the new American Hitler, in 2013 he left the white nationalist movement, rejecting and repudiating it.

How that transformation happened is a tale that offers critical lessons for anti-racists. The story of this transformation is told in a wonderful book, Rising Out Of Hatred, by Eli Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer.

As a young boy, Derek was heavily influenced by his birth family. Both his parents were active white supremacists. His father was instrumental in setting up Stormfront, probably the largest neo-Nazi website. Derek was a regular contributor, posting thousands of times on the site. He started a white pride website for children. Derek also started an online racist radio station. He and his dad had a daily talk radio show.

At a white nationalist conference organized by David Duke shortly after the election of President Obama, here is how Duke introduced Derek:

“I’d like to introduce the leading light of our movement. I don’t know anybody who has better gifts. He may have a much more extensive national and international career than I’ve had.”

Derek was a smooth racist. Committed to mainstreaming white nationalism, Derek did not use racist slurs. He never advocated violence or breaking the law. He favored sanitizing and repackaging white nationalism. Instead of donning Klan robes for cross-burnings, Derek favored business suits with a message against illegal immigration. It was an approach pioneered by Duke.

Derek saw white people as the victims of discrimination. He aggressively argued that there was an ongoing white genocide. Derek marshaled pseudo-scientific arguments to justify his views. He maintained that whites had bigger brains than non-whites and were genetically superior.

Saslow describes the debate in the white nationalist movement over what they called the Jewish question. At issue was whether Jews were considered white or outsiders. In 2008, Derek wrote, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.” He felt Jews were not white.

Because Derek was an excellent student, in 2010 he got admitted into New College of Florida, the state’s honors college. New College had a reputation as an alternative school, welcoming to non-conformists.

Once at college, Derek quickly realized the danger in going public with his racist identity. As a survival move, he decided to hide it. In his first year, Derek made friends with a Peruvian immigrant student and two Jewish students. He also started dating a Jewish woman.

Derek had difficulties squaring his ideological beliefs with his personal relationships. He struggled between the different parts of his life. He liked his friends and he agonized over the contradictions. He believed white Europeans needed to date only white Europeans but still he dated a Jewish woman.

Things came to a head for Derek when he was outed as a white supremacist by another New College student who was writing a thesis on extremists. The student accidentally discovered the Derek Black he read about was a student at New College. The student decided to share this information online with the entire New College community. Derek was studying in Germany at the time.

Derek decided he was not going to leave New College.The disclosure about Derek provoked a major split among New College students about how to relate to Derek. The split was between advocates for inclusion or exclusion. Some favored reaching out to him and some wanted to shame and shun him.

Genuinely liking him, Derek’s two Jewish friends on campus decided to engage him with the hope he could evolve over time. They regularly invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Although they were horrified by his views, they did not write him off. They maintained an active dialogue. They practiced what Saslow calls non-judgmental inclusion.

While it took a period of three years, Derek eventually could not reconcile his old ideology with his friendships. Critical to this evolution was the role of Derek’s girlfriend Allison who challenged his views continuously. In an email Derek sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he renounced white nationalism, saying:

“I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s race requires me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious of their advancements.

Derek’s story provides a powerful lesson about the positive value of inclusion. It is an argument against the dehumanization of political opponents. We are all more than our current political positions. It is reductive to view our current political opponents statically rather than dynamically. To quote Derek again:

“Outreach and discourse won’t magically solve the problem of hate. But without those private conversations with people I cared about, I might not have seen the weaknesses in my arguments.”

At a time when America is so bitterly divided, Derek’s example shows the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree. If a top racist in the country can transform into an antiracist, there is hope for all kinds of people to grow and change. There remains no substitute for the power of persuasion.

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Unhinged Hate and the Caravan Boogeyman – posted 11/4/2018

November 5, 2018 1 comment

Usually in trying to understand the reasons for murder, the motives and thinking of a gunman are not starkly etched. A degree of mystery is the norm. That cannot be said in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers.

Immediately before shooting and killing eleven people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers left a record. He went online and posted on Gab, an extremely anti-semitic and racist social media site.

In his last post before the shooting, Bowers singled out HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a little known immigrant advocacy organization. Bowers wrote:

“HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Witnesses at the temple said that before he started shooting, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die”. It would appear that Bowers blamed Jews in America for an invasion of non-white immigrants. Somehow he saw these immigrants as destined to slaughter white people.

Bowers had a history of making disparaging comments about Jews on Gab. He had previously written “Jews are the children of Satan”. He posted a picture of a fiery oven like those used in Nazi concentration camps to cremate Jews with the caption “Make Ovens 1488 F. Again”.

In considering Bowers’ acts, context and timing matter. The invasion he feared, the so-called caravan, has been a recent obsession of President Trump and Fox News. By relentless fear-mongering and constant repetition, Trump and his media servant worked to create a boogeyman.

The caravan, a collection of up to 7,000 Hondurans, seeking to escape violence in their home country and to obtain asylum, was made out to be an existential threat to the United States, even though it was still in southern Mexico.

It is inconceivable Bowers would have acted as he did when he did without the caravan narrative promoted by Trump and Fox News. That narrative flipped Bowers’ switch and led him to act out.

Those who fail to see the connection between the hate and fear Trump promotes and the actions of Bowers are kidding themselves. While Trump may have seen the caravan as a ploy to mobilize his voters to the polls, Bowers’ murders are a form of collateral damage. Trump’s anti-immigration rants have emboldened and inspired white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Right wing authoritarian movements invariably collect and surface unhinged sociopaths like Bowers. The fact that he was even more extreme than others in the alt right does not minimize Trump’s responsibility. With his support for the “good” Nazi collaborators at Charlottesville, Trump has given the alt right a pass on violence.

People like Bowers and other white supremacists are an integral part of Trump’s base. They totally stand behind his presidency because they see him advancing their racist and anti-semitic movement, mainstreaming their views.

I was surprised by Bowers’ focus on HIAS. I have a personal connection to the organization. My sister, Lisa Baird, was HIAS Pa’s first staff attorney. Based in Philadelphia, Lisa primarily handled asylum claims. She had an extremely diverse caseload representing clients from all over the world. She worked for HIAS from 1993 to 1998.

HIAS Pa now has a staff of 40 and about 14 attorneys. It is the largest nonprofit provider of immigration legal services in Pennsylvania, specializing in representing unaccompanied minors and survivors of domestic violence and victims of crimes.

There is also a part of HIAS that focuses on refugee resettlement. It is largely a social service department, providing case management to newly arrived refugees assigned to the agency.

HIAS has actually been around for well over 100 years. On TV, I saw the writer Masha Gessen explain that HIAS had helped her emigrate from Russia. The organization has a history of helping Russian Jews, escaping anti-semitism there, come to the United States.

Bowers’ view that Jews are behind immigration of non-whites is part of the white nationalist world view. In this fact-free perspective, Jews are the puppet masters pulling the strings, financing the caravan and promoting non-white immigration.

To these folks on the alt right, any immigration of non-whites conflicts with their goal of a white ethno-state. For them, just the presence of non-white people equals slaughter of white people. They want to deport all whom they classify as non-white, including Blacks, Latinos and Jews.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I do feel the need to address Trump supporters. I expect many of you were horrified by Bowers’ actions. I also expect many would deny that Trump bears any responsibility for these events. But if you oppose anti-semitism and racism, maybe you should think about how Trump’s pronouncements promoting fear and hatred of different racial groups fuel domestic terrorists like Bowers.

As a society, we have underestimated the danger coming from the far right. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017 found that roughly 22 million Americans call it “acceptable” to hold neo-nazi or white supremacist views. Willful indifference is not an option. It is imperative that we actively resist this pernicious form of homegrown extremism.

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