How does one of the country’s leading white nationalists become a liberal backer of racial equality? Shabbat dinner might have something to do with it.
According to a Washington Post profile, Derek Black, a onetime protege of David Duke, turned away from the hateful ideology after Jewish students reached out to him to join their Friday night dinner group.
Black, whose father Don started the neo-Nazi Web site Stormfront and whose mother Chloe once was married to Duke, used to figure as an heir to the white nationalist movement, which has moved closer to the mainstream of American politics with the rise of the ‘alt-right’ in this presidential election. But his encounters in college with a welcoming Friday night dinner group, eager to discuss and challenge his white nationalist conviction, eventually led him to abandon the hateful views that he was brought up on.
“What are you doing Friday night?” Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew at New College in Florida, texted Black, several months after Black had been unmasked as a white nationalist by fellow students at the university in 2011.
Black concealed his identity at university, stepping away from his life as a student every week to call into his father’s white nationalist radio show. But with a huge trail of rantings and ravings on the Internet, it was only too easy for his beliefs to be discovered, and for him to be summarily ostracized.
After thinking about it for a while, Stevenson decided he might be able to change Black’s ideology by exposing him to the Shabbat dinners he hosted in his apartment with an eclectic mix of Jews and non-Jews.
“Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” recalled Stevenson. Black, who had not been invited to any social event following the big reveal, accepted Stevenson’s offer.
Black attended the dinners regularly through the end of the school year, and his new friends began to nudge him to leave behind the white nationalist ideology that he believed in until then. With their encouragement, he began to slowly deconstruct the intellectual arguments for racism, and to take classes on topics like Jewish scripture and Islamic civilization.
He steadily backed away from the white nationalist movement, and its separatist demands and cries of “white genocide.” “I am not a white supremacist,” he wrote on a student message board, shortly before graduating in 2013. “I don’t believe people of any race, religion or otherwise should have to leave their homes or be segregated or lose any freedom.” One of the Shabbat friends replied: “I feel like you are a representative of a movement you barely buy into. You need to identify with more than 1/50th of a belief system to consider it your belief system.”[
Later that summer, Black fully disavowed white nationalism and racist ideologies, e-mailing a statement to that effect to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups. “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 done,” he said in the statement, published on the group’s Web site.
Now in grad school, and more than three years after his break with white nationalism, Black told the Washington Post he supports increased immigration to the United States and agrees with Hillary Clinton on most issues. Maybe it’s time to invite some “alt-right” folks to a Shabbat dinner near you.
Daniel J. Solomon is the Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.