This is a story about the transformative power of a liberal arts education. Both a cautionary tale and an inspiration, its unlikely heroes include a devoted member of a white nationalist group and an Orthodox Jew.
Derek Black is the son of Don Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and the creator of Stormfront, a white nationalist website. Derek’s godfather is David Duke, the former Klan leader now running for a Senate seat in Louisiana.
Derek grew up believing the anti-government ideology that preaches the dangers of tap water, popular culture, and people of color. As a child he created a kids’ webpage for Stormfront and hosted a radio show where he made anti-Semitic and racist remarks. After the 2008 election, Derek spoke frequently about efforts to “restore White America.”
In a profile in the Washington Post, reporter Eli Saslow traces what happened after Derek, home-schooled since third grade, left West Palm Beach and enrolled in New College, a liberal arts school in Sarasota. There he met students from all over the world and took classes that shook his certainty about race and history. Still, he secretly continued his daily radio show and made plans for a white nationalist conference in Tennessee.
Then a fellow student stumbled across Derek’s online profile and outed him on the college forum as a white nationalist. The students at New College debated how to respond. Rather than demonizing or ostracizing him, they wanted to put into practice the open-minded inquiry that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education.
That’s when Matthew Stevenson stepped up.
An Orthodox Jew, Matthew regularly asked students to share a Shabbat meal on Fridays. He sent Derek an invitation.
For months after Derek began attending, the group was wary. Slowly they began to engage with him in respectful, meaningful dialogue. Mostly they listened to each other, and Derek began to test his ideas in the crucible of friendly debates, reevaluating what he had learned from his family and their supporters.
The more he read scientific studies about race and genetics and historical accounts that contradicted what he had been taught, the less committed he was to the ideas posted on his father’s website. All the while, he continued civil, thoughtful conversations with Matthew and his Shabbat friends.
Finally, he realized he no longer believed the ideas he’d once held with such fervor. In a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he wrote about his “slow but steady disaffection with white nationalism.”
Now 27, Derek worries that his earlier predictions that people were “just waiting for a politician who actually talks about all the ways whites are being stepped on” have panned out this election season.
“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 I have done,” he wrote.
In his “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato describes us as living in a cave, unaware that what we call reality are only shadows. Becoming educated is like leaving the cave, blinking painfully in the sunlight until our eyes adjust.
Derek’s education hasn’t been without pain. His family shuns him, and he has to live with remorse about his earlier actions.
But he accepts that cost. Like Plato’s cave dweller, he’s glad to have a broader vision of himself and his connection to the rest of the world.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.