Derek Black’s head isn’t shaved. He doesn’t have a swastika tattoo. He’s never been arrested for a violent crime. Yet this 24-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida, was once the future of white hate.
Black was born into the white-power aristocracy and spent his life building a reputation as a rising star in the white-nationalist scene. His father founded Stormfront.org, the Internet’s oldest and largest white-supremacy forum, and his mother was once married to former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. Black used his prominent standing within the hate movement to amass a following of his own.
At age 12, Black was featured in the HBO documentary Hate.com for creating a kid’s guide to white pride on his father’s website. While still in his teens, Black hosted a Stormfront radio program, lectured at white-pride conferences, and dabbled in local politics, running for a seat on the Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee on a platform of banning immigration for non-Europeans. He won a primary election but was later disqualified for not signing a party loyalty oath forbidding activities—such as white nationalism—that would make Republicans look bad. At 21, he hosted a local AM radio show that paradoxically catered to a predominantly Haitian audience, featuring guests like Gordon Baum, head of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, and Jared Taylor, editor of the “race realist” magazine American Renaissance.
But last week, Black threw it all away. In a letter to the movement’s biggest enemy, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a Montgomery, Alabama–based anti-racism group, he shocked his former allies by detailing his disillusionment with white supremacy. He wanted out.
“I’m baffled. I’m disappointed in many ways,” said Derek’s father, Don Black. Almost immediately after reading Derek’s letter to the SPLC, the elder Black wrote on his Stormfront blog that he no longer wanted to speak to his son. He told The Daily Beast that he changed his mind a few days later. “I regret that I’ve lost a comrade in arms ... It’s gut-wrenching for me because Derek and I have traveled around the country since he was 9 years old. But he’s still my son and I love him. In some ways I’m actually relieved that he’s taken himself out of the war zone, so to speak.”
How, then, did Derek Black go from being one of the most prominent young figures in white nationalism to rejecting everything he once believed in?
White nationalism is essentially a rebranded version of white supremacy. Acknowledging that their dream of reinstating white rule in the United States is no longer realistic, white nationalists operate with a more revolutionary mind-set, focusing on preparation for what they believe is a coming destruction of white America through immigration and multiculturalism.
It’s virtually impossible to measure the number of people involved in racist hate groups—the organizations’ own membership numbers are notoriously unreliable—so organizations like the SPLC instead tally individual chapters. And these numbers suggest that hate is booming.
In 2000, SPLC counted 602 hate groups in the U.S. That number ballooned to 1,007 in 2012. Experts say the nation’s rapidly changing racial demographics—and the election of President Obama—have spiked enrollment. While hate movements typically experience a steady trickle of defectors, experts say those dropping out are consistently outnumbered by those joining.
But Derek Black didn’t join. He was born into the movement, and carrying out the family legacy was less a choice than an expectation. Before creating Stormfront.org, Don Black was a former Alabama Ku Klux Klan leader who spent time in prison for attempting to overthrow the tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica. Derek’s mother, Chloe, also a veteran of the “pro-white” movement, once served as vice president of the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan. (Interestingly, for 35 years she worked for Cuban-born sugar baron Pepe Fanjul. In 2008, she was linked to Fanjul’s effort to build a school for underprivileged black and Hispanic children in Florida and told the Palm Beach Post, “I do not agree with extremist or racially prejudice views.”)
Unlike most young people his age, Black isn’t visibly active on social media. If he has a Facebook or Twitter account, they’re both well hidden, and he doesn’t seem to have posted on any blogs since Stormfront’s White Pride for Kids nearly 10 years ago.
When Black announced that he was calling it quits last week, angry Stormfront users suggested that his liberal education was to blame. According to the SPLC, Black, who was home-schooled, is a junior at the New College of Florida, a relatively diverse liberal-arts school. Don Black says his son graduated from the New College and is working on campus before attending graduate school in the fall. In the spring of 2011, he studied abroad in Munich, later describing the experience as “essential to my personal growth” and “ability to think globally.” Mark Potok, the SPLC senior fellow to whom he emailed his letter of defection, says Black’s education is what makes him so unusual.
“He seems to have simply thought his way out of this movement as an intellectual exercise, which is pretty much remarkable,” Potok told The Daily Beast. “He’s a bright kid who went to a big, multiracial, liberal school and started to see a bigger world around him than the Klan and white nationalism.” Furthermore, Potok suggests that the college-age white supremacist just wanted to fit in. “Over the years it bothered him that fellow classmates felt he was scary.”
Don Black, who can’t resist boasting about his son’s accomplishments, from winning a science fair at 13 to making stained glass and metal working at a Renaissance fair, said he was concerned about sending his son to a school that, according to the Princeton Review, has one of the most politically liberal student bodies in the country. Now, after hearing from some of Derek’s friends about how he was supposedly treated by other students, Don Black believes his concerns were justified.
“He was subject to a vicious hate campaign,” he said. “A minority of students there made a cause out of hating Derek. In fact, some of them actually made hating him and harassing him in every way part of their identity.”
“White nationalism is a failed theory,” Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi, told The Daily Beast. “Someone who had it forced down his throat for so many years is probably more likely to see the light of day and get out. It’s impossible not to see the flaws if you know that much about it.”
At age 14, Picciolini helped found a neo-Nazi skinhead gang on the streets of his working-class Chicago suburb. By the mid-’90s, he’d become the leader of the Northern Hammer Skinheads, a chapter of one of the world’s largest and most violent neo-Nazi factions. When he opened up his own record store in Chicago in 1994, Picciolini was forced to interact with the minorities he reviled. It was then that he first questioned his beliefs. Once his two sons were born, Picciolini left the movement. “I wanted to keep them away from what I thought was a dirty lifestyle.”
A leader in the movement, Picciolini was able to frame his defection as a retirement. He left without a stir and after years of quietly distancing himself from the cause founded Life After Hate, an organization run by former extremists who use their experience both to assist police and government agencies in investigations and encourage others to break away from hate groups—a rehab for racists.
Frank Meeink and Angela King, both ex-skinheads affiliated with Life After Hate, say spending time in prison, getting to know people they would have hated or even hurt on the street, pushed them to change.
“Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had were a group of Jamaican women I met in prison and they would ask me things that were hard to answer. Like, ‘If you met me on the street, would you fight me? Would you call me names?’” King served three years for aiding the 1998 robbery of an adult video store in Florida.
“It’s like having to break a very bad habit,” she told The Daily Beast. “It was an intense process of scrutinizing my own thoughts and actions, taking everything step by step and asking, ‘Why did I think that?’ and ‘Why do I feel this way?’”
“We’ve all discovered that this movement that promised us we would be proud white warriors isn’t panning out the way they told us it would,” said Frank Meeink, who left the movement after serving time in prison for kidnapping and beating a rival gang member. “Eventually most people come to the conclusion that this movement, any racist group, is evil. Either you accept that it’s going to be evil or you change.”
Derek Black’s letter to the SPLC offers few details about what changed his views on race but makes clear that they have shifted dramatically. “I am sorry for the damage done by my actions and my past endorsement of white nationalism,” he writes. “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements.”
Mark Potok says he was as surprised as anyone to see Black’s renunciation of white nationalism sitting in his inbox. Not long after the letter was published, Black’s profile was removed from the SPLC’s catalog of major extremists and organizations. “It turns out that Derek Black is an intelligent young man who found his way,” Potok said.
But that’s not how everyone sees it. While plenty of online commenters countered cries of betrayal with expressions of sympathy, others dismissed the announcement as a phase—or even a hoax. Don Black says Derek’s mother, stepsisters, and grandmothers were all equally shocked and dismayed by his mea culpa. While Don says he won’t disown his son, Derek “might have Stockholm syndrome,” he said.
“He’s a good writer, and if he were to come up with his own conclusions about this, he would have written something more original,” Black said, “not just regurgitated the same anti-white, multicultural standard bullshit that’s taught in colleges everywhere.”
Derek’s half-sister Erika sounded equally mournful, telling The Daily Beast, “This is a really sad time for us.”
Derek Black declined to comment for this article. (Update: Black wrote a statement to The Daily Beast after this article was published. Read it here.)
Looking at Stormfront’s White Pride for Kids page—which, scattered with photos of a baby-faced Black, appears to have been left untouched for about a decade—it’s clear that Black has indeed long felt like a pariah. In a note prominently displayed above Confederate flags and a collection of white-pride songs, a 15-year-old Black boasts about moving from public school, where “White minds are wasted,” to home school, where “in addition to my schoolwork, I’m also learning pride in myself, my family and my people.” He punctuates his message with an ironic plea to his detractors: “I am only fifteen years old and I really don’t need your hateful thoughts in my head.”
In November, writing on a New College student-only forum, Black suggests that those “hateful thoughts” had triumphed, insisting that he does not identify with white supremacy and revealing that he is pro-abortion rights and pro-gay marriage. When the SPLC published Black’s message a month later, he denied he was abandoning his white-nationalist background. Last week, he explained that he simply wasn’t ready to publicly ditch the movement.
He’s ready now.