Nonfiction: Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

Love wins.

The first step to writing a nonfiction book like Rising Out of Hatred is to have a good underlying story.  Saslow has a great one.  How does the scion of a leading white supremacist family and the heir apparent to the movement go from that to rejecting white supremacism in the space of just a few years?

Derek Black is the son of Don Black.  As a teenager, Don (former KKK Grand Wizard and the founder of Stormfront) carpooled to a white supremacist conference with David Duke (former KKK Grand Wizard and elected member of the state legislature in Louisiana) and Joseph Paul Franklin (serial killer and maimer of Larry Flynt).  He was shot in the torso in high school by the brother of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s assassin) while attempting to the steal the membership list of a rival white supremacist organization.  Don would later go on to marry Duke’s ex-wife and sire Derek, who Duke would treat like a godson.  Small world.

Derek created a children’s page at Stormfront, had his own radio show in high school, and was speaking at white supremacist conferences as a teen.  At 19 he was elected to the Palm Beach County, Florida, Republican committee (they refused to seat him).  He pioneered putting a softer face on white supremacism and the use of rhetorical devices like “white genocide.”  He was also bright and intellectual curious, which, after a stint in community college, led the homeschooled young adult to New College of Florida.

Not the first choice of a white supremacist, you would think.  New College comes off like a caricature of the “woke” liberal arts university, complete with an email forum where “microaggressions were never tolerated, and trigger warnings were used to protect peers from potentially upsetting content.”

Derek would call into his radio show in the mornings, and then sing Willie Nelson songs with an Orthodox Jewish classmate.

The pressure of the dual life pressed on Derek.  He attempted to out himself by leaving a two page spread opened on a campus gym magazine rack.  It didn’t take.  But a fellow student put two and two together a couple months later and outed him over the email forum (he was studying in Germany for the semester).  Remarkably, Derek returned to New College.  And then something even more remarkable happened.

I mean, yes, the expected happened.  Lots of sturm und drang on the email forum.  A local Antifa showing up to lecture everyone on the evils of talking to this guy.  Lots of calls for violence, but no actual violence.  (Violence is usually something they leave to the real men, preferring to stick to the virtue signaling of calling for violence.)  They did manage to vandalize a PT Cruiser that didn’t belong to Derek.

What was remarkable and heartening was to see students standing up for free speech.  It was heartening to see the administration refuse to expel Derek without a basis for doing so (even if their hand was mainly stayed by fear of a successful lawsuit, public spectacle, or both).  It was heartening to see the debate play out publicly over a campus listserve without the administration shutting it down.

And then something really remarkable happened.  Derek’s old duet partner for Willie Nelson tunes, Matthew, started inviting him over for his weekly Shabbat dinner.[1]  Derek politely attended, but the dinners met with no initial success.  Matthew was undeterred.  It was the right thing to do regardless: “The basic principle is that it’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.”

But respect and compassion would succeed where hate was doomed to fail.  Humility and perseverance would accomplish what ostracism could not.  The human brain has an astonishing ability to filter arguments that cut against our priors.  Changing our minds often has more to do with love than reason.  The Shabbat dinners changed Derek’s views on Jews but not much else.  In the end, he clung to views he now described as white nationalist because it was part of his identity and because those views were deeply held by the family he loved dearly.

And then Rising Out of Hatred blossoms unexpectedly into a love story.  Matthew’s roommate Allison’s initial reaction to Derek appearing at Shabbat dinner was to lock herself in her room.  Eventually, though, Derek and Allison developed a friendship, and then a romance.

We know how the story ends, but Saslow keeps up the narrative tension, and without resorting to cheap tricks.  We know that Allison attending a white supremacist conference isn’t going to end in her conversion.  But the tension remains nonetheless, in part because Saslow does a good job conveying her deep discomfort attending and interacting with Derek’s family.  It is Allison who ultimately is able to push Derek on his beliefs.  The story almost ends with Derek renouncing his beliefs, changing his name, and moving to the Midwest for graduate school.

But can a prominent white supremacist just walk away?  There are a million problems in this world.  It is our prerogative as individuals to choose which of those problems we focus on and, necessarily, which of those we do not focus on.  Derek’s actions, though, created an ethical obligation to work to counter the harm he had done.  An obligation he ultimately accepts after watching the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of the ALT-Right.

Rising Out of Hatred sputters to an unsatisfying conclusion, but that is kind of the point.  Derek Black is no longer a white supremacist, but that is a battle, not the war.  Having one person reject white supremacy feels like where we should be starting, not finishing (especially since he hasn’t fully rejected identity politics[2] in favor of recognizing the inherent dignity of individual human beings).  And, as the Saslow makes clear, there are plenty of other boy wonders waiting in the wings to lead the white supremacist movement into the future.  What will it profit us if white supremacy loses a Derek Black, yet gains a Richard Spencer?[3]

It is one thing to ignore the role of the Left in providing rhetorical cover for white nationalists.  The Tea Party, for all its faults, was a populist movement genuinely concerned with constitutionalism—something perhaps unheard of in the history of populist movements!  But the Left tarred the Tea Party with the label racist, whether it fit or not.[4]  And when the Trumpists showed up, they had no rhetorical weapons left to distinguish them as worse.  Mitt Romney, for all his faults, was a genuinely good man and an orthodox conservative—something despised by the ALT-Right, who put “alternative” right in the name, after all.  But the Left tarred him with the label racist, whether it fit or not.  And when Trump showed up, they had no rhetorical weapons left to distinguish him as worse.  “White genocide” is nonsense made much more rhetorically effective by attempts to redefine violence beyond violence.  Attempts to redefine racism to cover structural oppression rather than actual racism gives racists the cover of the crowd.

But Saslow must pick and choose in service of telling the story.  It another thing entirely, though, to contribute to it.  Saslow’s connects an increase in gun sales after Obama’s election with an increase in white supremacist activity.  The more obvious culprit was Obama’s pro-gun control leanings, which would eventually culminate in open support for confiscation.  Saslow is engaging in serious, and irresponsible, hyperbole when he describes the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County as “effectively erasing one of Martin Luther King’s signature achievements.”

All in all, though, Rising Out of Hatred is a remarkable story, well told.  It serves as a valuable reminder that racism, a collectivist scourge, is beaten first and foremost by individuals directly interacting with other individuals.  It is a reminder that love wins and, yes, the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice.  It is motivation to keep pushing the rock, even if we don’t think we are moving the rock.

4 of 5 Stars.


Disclosure: I received an advance copy of Rising Out of Hatred via NetGalley.


[1] “Matthew had already experienced enough shaming at New College to believe that exclusion only reinforced divides.  He was an observant Jew among atheists, a political conservative in a place of radical liberals, an aspiring hedge fund manager in a school of rabid anticapitalists.”

[2] Derek (rightly) criticizes white nationalism for “the sort of mind-boggling emphasis [it] puts on maintaining an oppressive, exclusive sense of identity.”  The same criticism holds for the neo-segregationists on the CTRL-Left.

[3] The good news, left out, at least, of my ARC, is that initial inroads by white supremacists and especially white nationalists into the Trump administration have fallen flat.  The ALT-Right has largely been pushed out of the administration; the Establishment has hung on tenaciously.  But, again, that feels like a draw at best.  And, even if the Republican party hasn’t embraced white nationalism, it is now quite comfortable with identity politics, leaving liberals on both the Right and the Left politically homeless.

[4] Saslow describes the Tea Party movement as “consisting mostly of disenfranchised whites.”  He surely can’t mean disenfranchised literally.  But I’m not sure what he does mean: Tea Party supporters had slightly higher than average incomes and only 6% of supporters were unemployed.  It is true that the Tea Party movement consisted “mostly of . . . whites,” but the same is true of the United States.  Racially, the make-up of the Tea Party movement was quite similar to that of all U.S. adults.

4 thoughts on “Nonfiction: Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

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