As a teenager, Derek Black was the webmaster for Stormfront, the Internet’s most prominent message board for white nationalists. The reason? His father created the site and needed technical assistance. As a result, Derek was indoctrinated to hate non-whites. Derek became so bonded to the white nationalist community that he became the godson of David Duke, outspoken racist and founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But Derek escaped that world thanks to an unlikely ally: a Jewish community that consistently invited him to Shabbat. Derek came to realize that the hatred he’d been taught was a lie. The lesson, says former CIA clandestine operator Amaryllis Fox, is that counter-terrorism tactics regularly used abroad against enemies of the United States, i.e. exposing them to the truth, can be used effectively against its own internal enemies.
AMARYLLIS FOX: Because of my work in counter-terrorism I’ve seen so many of these lessons around identifying humanity in one another unfold overseas. And when I came back to the United States I was really interested as to whether those same lessons would apply in daily life here. Is it possible to find common humanity in one another domestically that would be just as shocking as finding common humanity with our adversaries was to me during the war on terror? And the answer is a resounding yes.
One of the examples that I really find moving and that really gives an idea of how powerful this can be in a community’s life is that of Derek Black.
And this is the story of a young man who grew up, a teenager with a father who was friends with David Duke, started Stormfront which is the first and still the largest neo-Nazi online community in the United States. And because even neo-Nazis need online help from their kids, when Derek was a teenager his dad looked to him to be the webmaster of this dark, hate-filled online community.
And so Derek who grew up 13, 14, 15 years old being the webmaster, being the moderator for discussions of hate online. And eventually having his own podcast that went out nationwide to this community of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Now when it came time for Derek to graduate high school, he got into college and went and started at New College in Florida, a liberal arts community, and didn’t tell anybody about what his family was known for, about Stormfront, about his role as the kind of anointed prince of the neo-Nazi community in the United States.
He kept his head down, lived in the dorms, made friends with his next door neighbors, one of whom was an orthodox Jew who will be relevant later in the story. So he made good friends with those around him, did his work but continued to go home and live this dual life as the webmaster for Stormfront.
Between his first and his second year somebody at his college was doing a paper on the neo-Nazi movement in the United States and in doing research came across Derek’s profile on Stormfront and wrote to the college message board: “Hey, this is a member of our community. Was anyone aware of this? Look at the hate on this website. What should we as a community do about the fact that this young man is in our midst? He was living in the dorms with us.” And the thread is incredibly passionate and many students are horrified. Many advocate for his dismissal and don’t want him in their midst, understandably, based on the vitriol that was being quoted in this discussion.
Derek come September went back to school but lived outside of the dorms off campus. He didn’t comment on the thread and continued to keep his head down and go to school.
Of course at this point everybody knows who he is and is avoiding him. He attends class and goes home every day. Now when from his first year in the dorms he had an orthodox Jewish friend who had lived on the same hall as him in the dorms.
And this friend said, unlike everyone else’s response, “Here’s what I would like to do. I would like to invite Derek to Shabbat dinner. And those of you my friends who will also share Shabbat dinner with us I would ask of you one thing. Please do not talk to Derek about this particular issue. Anything else is on the table but please don’t raise this issue with him.”
And for many of the guests it was a big challenge, but those who attended agreed and Derek came, shared a meal and the next week he was invited again and again he came. And this continued Friday after Friday after Friday throughout the year until eventually one day Derek said of his own accord, “You know, this is nothing like what I was raised to believe that it was. You’re nothing like the way that I was raised to believe that you were.”
And he began to give examples of the crazy, terrible, slanderous myths that he had been raised to believe about the Jewish community. And his new friends said, one by one for each myth, “Let’s look that up together. Let’s see where that myth began. How crazy that is. Let’s all try to learn its history together and what we can learn from it.”
And together as a community they debunked myth after myth after myth to the point that Derek initiated a new area of study at the college that involved building travel around different societies and communities that a given student feels that they don’t know enough about, and traveling to those countries or to those regions of the United States to spend time immersed in other cultures.
And this got Derek to the point where he had to remove himself from his family’s life and his father was not accepting of his change of heart and excommunicated him from the family. And as far as I’ve heard last of the story that’s where it stands. But Derek is now a leader in the academic community there at the college around building study from language to community to culture to counteract one’s built-in prejudices through compassionate engagement and immersion rather than vitriol and isolation.