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Can College Campuses Change Racists?

Eli Saslow’s excellent Rising Out of Hatred demonstrates how campuses can work magic -- even on the most vile racists.

October 15, 2019
 
 

At the beginning of the summer, my friend Beverly Tatum (famed academic, higher ed leader and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) recommended Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred to me. In addition to being a harrowing look into the world of white nationalism, it is right up there with Tara Westover’s Educated as one of the great contemporary works on the power of college campuses.

The book is about how a racist changes. More specifically, how a campus can change a racist.

Derek Black, the figure at the center, is no casual racist. He is the son of Don Black, the founder of the largest racist hate site on the internet, Stormfront.org, and he is the godson of one of the most notorious racists of the last half century, David Duke.

Derek was all set to write the next chapter in the history of white nationalism. He had a daily radio show about white nationalism and ran (successfully) for political office in Florida. He was a white supremacist prodigy.

Derek went to New College of South Florida and majored in German so that he could develop a deeper connection to what he viewed as the culture of white glory. It didn’t take long for students there to find out that he was a famous white nationalist.

He was shunned by many. People wrote mean things about him on the all-campus online forum; they hounded him out of parties and heckled him in public spaces.

I cheered these students as they did this. I mean, a leader of white supremacy wanting to play acoustic guitar at the open mic night? No way.

Thankfully, there were students who took a different approach.

One of the first people that Derek became friends with was a Peruvian immigrant named Juan. He was invited to Shabbat dinners by Matthew and Moshe, two observant Jews. They continued to welcome him even after his ugly white supremacist views on Jews became public.

And he dated a girl named Allison, who was opposed to Derek’s white nationalism with every ounce of her being, but she saw something in Derek other than a racist.

And then there was what he was reading in the classroom. He learned that race is more a social construct than a biological reality. That the great medieval European warriors that white nationalists celebrated had never considered themselves white -- it wasn’t a category of self-understanding back then. He learned about the history of racism in the United States and how the effects of that history are palpably felt today in everything from income inequality to racist attitudes. He learned about the historic achievements of Indian, Chinese, Islamic and other civilizations and came to the conclusion that the current dominance of white people is more a fluke of history than anything else.

The combination of what he learned in the classroom and the warm multicultural community at New College changed Derek (there were also plenty of cancels and call-outs). It was a slow and painful process, requiring Derek to give up his crown and walk away from his family.

And when he did it, he did it with style. He publicly apologized on the New College student email forum. He wrote op-eds for The New York Times disavowing white nationalism in the wake of the Trump election.

All of this, because of a college campus.

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