We’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships, with other people in their twenties, that changed him. After his ideology was outed at college, one of the only orthodox Jews on campus invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. What happened over the next two years is like a roadmap for transforming some of the hardest territory of our time.
MR. STEVENSON: In fact, we — I remember, the first time that Derek was invited over, I was very explicit with people that this was not “ambush Derek” time. This was not some opportunity to yell at him for the wrongness of his beliefs, because I knew that he would — first of all, he’d spent his whole life defending this ideology. I hadn’t spent my whole life attacking the statistics and other things that they built their ideological convictions on. And as a consequence, I knew that shouting at him — or, at least, I felt that shouting at him at something like that, or having anybody else at the table do so, would just immediately put him on the defensive, and he’d never come back. So I was very explicit that people were not to discuss his background at the table, or the white nationalism, more generally.
MS. TIPPETT: But you say it in such a matter-of-fact way. I feel like right now, in our country, we forget that if we really want people to change, that <strong>it has never happened in human history that somebody changed because someone else told them how stupid they were.</strong> What was that experience like for you? You must have wondered, when you first went, are they going to grill me about this? Or, will I be put on the spot?
MR. BLACK: I think I was less worried about being grilled than what actually happened, where I wasn’t grilled…
…and had to spend, ultimately, years of really enjoyable time among people who — the fact that I was friends with them was contradictory to my worldview. And that was a lot more uncomfortable than had I been grilled, because I had a background doing media interviews since I was 12 years old, where people say, “How do you believe in hate?” And I had crime statistics and IQ statistics and a history of American white supremacist statements from the founding fathers, and other things like that that tend to confuse people when a 14-year-old explains to them why all the races should be separated.
And I was pretty comfortable with that position. I thought it was important, and I knew how to do it, and if it had been a big argument, I would’ve had statistics, I would have misused social science, and I would have not changed their mind and not changed my own mind, but I would’ve at least known what was going on. I think the real thing that happened, where I was just at a Shabbat dinner for two years, and I had to say, “Well, I think my ideology is very anti-Semitic.”
.. MR. STEVENSON: I think it’s also worth pointing out that over those two years, I was legitimately friends with Derek. It was not some sabotage project where I was going undercover or something. I was legitimately — felt like I was — especially, over time, counted him amongst my closest friends, even when I frankly didn’t know exactly where he stood.
MS. TIPPETT: And you weren’t asking.
MR. STEVENSON: At first, as I mentioned, I was afraid that if I were to ask that the defenses would go up, and that that would be the end of it. Later on — well, after two years, it’s a little awkward. We’d even play games, because he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew. It was — so there would be awkward things. I screwed with him once, at this conference that he mentioned. I knew that he was doing it, he was organizing it. So I asked him, “What are you doing this weekend?”
He said, “I’m going to see some family.” I said, “Where?” I said, “What are you doing?” So it was a little cat-and-mouse game.
MR. BLACK: My answer was, “I’m going to a family reunion,” which was not untrue. My entire family was there.
MS. TIPPETT: What else was going on?
MR. BLACK: Well, it was a seminar that I had founded the year before in response to being outed at New College. I had been very uncomfortable with the fact that so many people at this college really detested what I was representing, even though I thought it was super-correct. So in response to that, the first year, I had organized this seminar up in the mountains of Tennessee, where people, where a small group would come together, and we would talk about the best ways to argue with anti-racists and to convince people that white nationalism is correct. And this was a year later, after that initial one, and I was a lot less certain of what I believed, and I was going back to it for…
MS. TIPPETT: Moral support?
.. MS. TIPPETT: So what happened is that you never made — the Shabbat dinners never became conversations about white nationalism. But then, gradually, over a period of time, in my understanding, Derek, individuals would bring something up with you, and you’d — I don’t know. I feel like you all — you handled this so well, and feels like the campus handled it well. So you would end up taking a walk with somebody, and they would say, “I really — I want to understand this,” and that started a different level of conversation.
MR. BLACK: People I met at the Shabbat dinners — in particular, one person who did the brunt of all this labor of listening to me explain this ideology and what-all is my evidence for it, and why am I so convinced this is true; and then doing the labor to say, <strong>“You are misusing crime statistics. Here’s how statistics works,”</strong> and having that sort of conversation happen sort of naturally. It was from meeting at the dinners but then being on a small campus and doing things like, “Let’s go down to the bay to watch the sunset and just spend time as people.” And eventually, it becomes sort of awkward that “We’ve never talked about that you believe in a reprehensible political ideology, and you’re advocating something terrible, and you seem kind of nice; how do you reconcile that?”
MS. TIPPETT: And you knew each other well enough that they could actually say it to you that way.
MR. BLACK: Yeah, because it was lower stakes than being on an interview for MSNBC or something. It was not that I had to make my points and try to get some converts; it was that I trusted this person. I liked this person. I respected this person. And I wanted to explain why I think this is correct, because “It’s clearly correct. If you don’t want to accept that it’s true, that’s a decision you can make. But it’s an uncomfortable truth.” And that was the position I was coming from.
.. you got to a point where — when you trotted out your arguments that you were so skilled in and so comfortable with, but it did actually become a conversation. You were actually able to listen to a different way of seeing even those arguments that felt so clear to you.
.. MR. BLACK: I wanted to be someone who used evidence and believed something because it was demonstrable, not because it was some gut feeling. And if the way we were using generalized IQ statistics from around the world was illegitimate because the IQ test is culturally normed, and you can’t go around the world giving it to people, and say, “Look, I’ve discovered the different intelligence of the races” — if that’s actually an illegitimate piece of evidence, I didn’t want to use it, which is why, at the time, I thought, “I’m becoming a better white nationalist. I’m becoming better at arguing this, because I now understand how these things are being misused.
And it’s only at the end, where piece after piece after piece is removed, and all I’m left with is the fact that I think that I can be friends with Jewish students and with people of color, but my belief system says that they should all be removed from the United States, and I don’t have any support for thinking that anyone is better off — all that is, is a hateful ideology.
.. you wrote this, “I would never have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with.” And yet, as we’ve been speaking, that process of you being able to interact with them and take in that outrage was the seed that got you to that point. So — but I would like to hear about how you are thinking, these days, about this line between civility and outrage and activism.
.. MR. BLACK: I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong. That’s what happened at college. It wasn’t just these conversations. The context for those conversations was that an entire community of people that I had gotten to know for a semester before they knew who I was, and who I respected, clearly had come to a very intelligent conclusion that what I was advocating was morally wrong, was factually wrong. And I found that very unpleasant, and I didn’t want to listen to it, and it initially drove me to organize a seminar to try to make white nationalists be more confident in what they were believing.
.. do you think you — without those quiet conversations, would the outrage alone have brought you around?
MR. BLACK: No; the outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But the quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage.
.. And there is a difference between being aggressive and being strong. There’s a difference between being vociferously opposed, in this case, to the white nationalist ideology and other hateful ideologies, and taking steps to harm an individual who subscribes to those ideologies. Even an ideology which is as reprehensible as most of us, probably all of us in this room, believe white nationalism to be, once you cross the line to saying, “He’s forfeited his rights as a human being; he’s forfeited his right to human dignity by virtue of having those beliefs” — maybe the Nazis said that the Jews forfeited their rights to human dignity by virtue of being Jews. Where does it end? So to be strong, no question, is important. But there is a difference between being strong and violating the humanity of another person.
.. it was grounded in empathy; that the reason why I was not willing to listen to the argument that sounded very straightforward — that we should work towards inclusion, not separation — was because I didn’t empathize with people who weren’t part of my in-group. And I thought I wasn’t necessarily doing anything bad to them, but it was also, the priority was the people who were within my in-group.
And <strong>what changed was feeling that people who were not in my in-group were being negatively impacted by my actions and that I should care about that.</strong> And trying to reconcile that I should care about people who are negatively impacted by my actions, and I’m still doing the actions, became very difficult. And it really was empathizing with people who were not “supposed” to be part of my group and increasing the number of people who were in my group — that’s the universal thing that I think came out of what I learned from coming through that, because it can — everybody has in-groups.
.. what, right now, makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?
MR. STEVENSON: Sure. So I don’t think I would use the word “despair,” because I think the word “despair” makes it seem as though there is no hope. But there is certainly a tendency, I think, increasing trend to only associating with people who agree with you, who have the same worldview, have the same opinions as you. And that’s psychologically pleasing, and it’s maybe fun, but the terrible cost of that is that you run a very real risk of losing empathy for people who disagree with you. And that’s why I see people — people who are my friends, who I love dearly, think nothing to say, “I hate so-and-so.” “I hate Republicans,” or, “I hate Democrats.” Do they know what they’re saying?
As far as hope, I think that the underlying spark of goodness that’s within each and every one of us and within everybody in the world is ultimately gonna win out; that this empathy that people can generate and feel — you can’t stop it in the long run.
.. <strong>I spent a lot of time trying to be a good activist for a bad cause.</strong> And I spent a lot of time seeing the ways that my predecessors had been successful at that, whether it’s winning campaigns or building organizations in large numbers, and so, cultivated arguments that found fertile ground. And that led us to think that we were not only right, but that with time, everybody would see that we were right, and agree.
.. And now I think I’m back to being confident. <strong>People do want inclusion; they do want to make a fair society. I think just about everybody does, wants there to be a society where we are not limited, where we’re not oppressed because of our group. And it’s just very hard to do that.</strong>