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Eli Saslow Traces 'Straight Line' From White Nationalism To Alleged Synagogue Shooter

Journalist Eli Saslow says there's a "straight line" between the suspect charged with 29 counts related to the deaths of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and the views of the white nationalist movement.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After Robert Bowers shot and killed at least 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday, we decided to postpone our scheduled interview with Jonah Hill. We'll hear that tomorrow. Today we're going to talk about how Bowers' views echo the rhetoric of the white nationalist movement and about the threat that this movement poses.

My guest, Eli Saslow, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter who is the author of a book about that movement titled "Rising Out Of Hatred." It focuses on the story of Derek Black. Derek's father, Don Black, is a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and created the Internet's largest white nationalist site, Stormfront. Derek was seen as an heir apparent in the movement, but he renounced his racist and anti-Semitic views when he was in his early 20s. In a few minutes, we'll hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded in September with Derek Black and Eli Saslow. But first we're going to hear the interview I recorded with Saslow this morning.

Eli Saslow, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm sorry it's such a sad occasion that's bringing you back to our program. When I heard about the massacre at the synagogue, I thought about your book. Derek Black has renounced his white nationalist views but his father, Don Black, is still a white nationalist and still has the website Stormfront. He did not pull the trigger at the synagogue, and I am not trying to blame him for that. But do you find Don Black's story relevant to the views that were expressed by the shooter, Robert Bowers?

ELI SASLOW: I think you can draw a straight line from Don's views and Don's work in this movement to the views expressed by the shooter. And, you know, that straight line honestly starts with just the ink on the shooter's body. He had a tattoo, 1488, two white nationalist slogans. Fourteen refers to a 14-word sort of statement of purpose that is central to what Stormfront does about, you know, securing a future for the white race and the existence of white children. And saying things like I'm here because of a white genocide and I can't stand by and watch my people get murdered, as the shooter in this case did when he was at the synagogue - that's exactly the language and the motivation that exists on Stormfront. And that's the way that they speak about this, quote, unquote, "race war" that they believe is underway.

GROSS: Yeah. Bowers had said that he believed that Jews were committing genocide against his people. Genocide is what happened to the Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Do white nationalists believe the Jews are committing genocide?

SASLOW: They do. And both Don and Derek were central to the sort of creation of that language. Even the term genocide - that was one of the main things that Derek and Don tried to spread and popularize on their radio show. And the idea behind it was that instead of speaking about, you know, minorities and slurs or things like that, that they could appeal to white people by the idea that their race was slowly disappearing. And more than that, that this was a genocide that somebody else was doing to white people. You know, it's a ludicrous idea, but unfortunately it's had huge purchase in this movement. And now white genocide I would say is probably at the top of the paradigm of white nationalist ideas.

GROSS: The shooter, Robert Bowers, also posted on the social media platform Gab. He posted about HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is a nonprofit that assists refugees. They started assisting Jewish refugees and then broadened to assist other refugees fleeing from hate. He tweeted, HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I'm going in.

My understanding is that was his final post on social media. So it's like Jews are committing genocide and immigrants are committing genocide - or they're at least slaughtering, quote, you know, "our people." So the idea that immigrants are going to like, quote, "slaughter us" - how does that connect to the language of white nationalists and the language that Derek and Don Black had come up with?

SASLOW: Yeah. I mean, in the horrific sort of hierarchy of white nationalist beliefs, they really consider Jews their primary enemy. What white nationalist believe, although it's ridiculous and awful and scientifically inaccurate to say, is that people of color and immigrants are by and large inferior to white. And left on their own, they would not be able to challenge the white race. But white nationalists believe that Jews are, while not white, very smart and sort of scheming and also are trying to propagate a scheme of multiculturalism which will weaken the white race.

So they believe that Jews have used immigrants, people of color and pushed for greater immigration, pushed for things like now this caravan to change the demographics of America so that ultimately white people will become a minority. And then white nationalist believe Jews will have even more power than they do now in the country.

That's why they identify Jews as their No. 1 enemy. And it's why throughout the history of the white nationalist movement we've seen more attacks on synagogues and more bombing threats on Jewish schools than we have almost any other demographic group.

GROSS: So Bowers had used social media to talk about how immigrants are going to slaughter white people. And President Trump has been tweeting and speaking about the dangers of the migrant caravan that is walking on foot from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border. And here's an example of something he said. The assault on country at our southern border, including the criminal elements and drugs pouring in, is far more important to me as president than trade or the USMCA. That's the replacement for NAFTA that he negotiated. Hopefully Mexico will stop this onslaught at their northern border - all Democrats' fault for weak laws.

But anyways, he called this the assault on our country. And it sounds like people are being killed if you use the word assault. How is the president's language - his language that's very, you know - describing in very frightening words this group of migrants walking toward the border - how is that language resonating among white nationalists?

SASLOW: That language is hugely popular among white nationalists and I think also hugely damaging because when you're talking to people as if they are at war, which - when you use words like onslaught, that's exactly what you're doing - then I think it's natural to expect that a few people within this movement are going to begin behaving as if they are at war. And they're going to take drastic action. This sort of fear mongering that happens I think particularly around immigration in the country is the huge fuel behind white nationalist ideas. It's something that comes from mainstream corners of our country and politics and on the Internet.

And I think one of the scary things about, you know, the last post that Bowers wrote on Gab is if you take out the last sentence, the I'm going in, that reads essentially like many memes on Facebook do every day. It reads like hundreds of posts on Stormfront every day. These are widely held ideas. White nationalists recently have gone from referring to immigrants first as illegals, which is insulting enough, then as infiltrators and now as invaders. They speak about this as if they are wartime commanders, which begins to justify drastic and violent action.

GROSS: President Trump has been calling himself a nationalist, and some people are saying that's a really buzzword for white nationalists. And that's - is like one step away from calling yourself a white nationalist. And so I'm wondering how you're hearing the president's self-description as a nationalist and also how that is being heard in the white nationalist world.

SASLOW: Yeah. I think that white nationalists feel like Donald Trump in some ways has been sort of winking at them and has been, you know, for years now in ways where he can use some of their language but also manage to explain that he was not saying it exactly that way. So, you know, during the presidential campaign, that sometimes meant that Donald Trump would retweet a white genocide message from a white genocide user, and that exact phrase, white genocide, would be spread to all of Donald Trump's followers.

I think similarly, when Donald Trump sort of said that he was a nationalist and gave a defense for nationalism, a lot of white nationalists thought, hey, this is him signaling to us that our ideas have real mainstream power and that he identifies with some of what we're doing even though of course he can't fully say that he's a white nationalist.

GROSS: So the synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, criticized Trump for calling himself a nationalist. Bowers said, he's not a nationalist; he's a globalist. Is globalist a buzzword for Jewish?

SASLOW: Yes. Globalist is definitely a buzzword for Jewish and a buzzword that the president himself and many people close to him have used often. The final campaign ad of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was a criticism against globalists with a picture of George Soros and five others, all Jewish, and, you know, with the Star of David also on this campaign ad. Globalists is absolutely a code word for talking about Jews, particularly in the white nationalist world.


SASLOW: Because they believe the Jews have worked their way into huge global power. You know, and it's interesting to read these white nationalist sites because they speak of Jews almost as if Jews are this sort of evil superhero with huge amounts of power. They say that Jews have wormed their way, in their words, into control over the U.S. government, over Hollywood, over huge international banks. And they believe that it's through this globalism that Jews have acquired enough power to begin to weaken the white race.

GROSS: Getting back to Bowers, the shooter, he criticized President Trump for being too accommodating of Jewish influence. And I'm wondering here if it's confusing to white nationalists to feel on the one hand that, as you put it, Trump is kind of winking at them with language like calling himself a nationalist, but on the other hand, his son-in-law, Jared, is Jewish. Trump's daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism. Trump now has two Jewish grandchildren. So, you know, do you get the sense that white nationalists are a little confused about how to read the president?

SASLOW: I think that they are a little bit confused, but it's a confusion that they're happy to live with because until this recent administration, white nationalists were widely condemned over the last 50 years by every politician with any power in the country. And now they feel like they have a politician who sort of is doing this dance of, you know, empowering some of their ideas, speaking about some of their ideas, but doing it with enough room to provide himself distance from the real racism and history of bloodshed that's at the heart of the movement.

So I think white nationalists - they do not believe that Donald Trump is a white nationalist. They don't think that he exactly identifies with their ideology. But they think that he agrees with a lot of their ideas and that he's breathing real power into a lot of those ideas in a mainstream political space. And in that context, they're happy to be confused.

GROSS: The social media platform that Bowers used is called Gab, and it sounds like it's the alternative social media platform for people who were basically thrown off of Twitter or Facebook because of their racist, anti-Semitic statements. So what can you tell us about Gab?

SASLOW: Yeah, Gab is pretty small in the social media space. I think it's about a half million users. But it really embraces this sort of radical idea of free speech above all else. So somebody like Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who does not have a platform on Twitter because Twitter doesn't allow for it - he's one of the most popular people on Gab. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, spends a lot of time there. There's a very high representation of white nationalist, racist ideas on Gab.

You know, and I think the danger of a place like Gab and also the danger of other social media networks is that it allows for people who already have some of these ideas to sort of cultivate their own reality. Bowers, when he went on Gab, he saw the messages of only the people that he followed, which is essentially one long news feed of confirmation bias.

Those were the messages that he was getting. He was reading again and again about the caravan, about the invaders, about the threat to America. So then suddenly saying something like, I can't sit by anymore and watch my people get slaughtered, that's because that's the messages he's been reading constantly on Gab and on places like it.

GROSS: So have you been following reaction on the white nationalist site Stormfront to the shooting at the synagogue? And Stormfront is the site that we'll be talking about in the interview we're about to hear. And we'll be hearing about the founder of it, and we'll be hearing from the founder's son. So what are you reading on Stormfront now?

SASLOW: There is some really vile sort of celebration of what happened. There are certainly some people on that message board who would consider him a hero, a racial warrior, and hold him up in those ways. I would say that the largest reaction on Stormfront is what I've seen after many of these shootings. And unfortunately, there have been many - you know, several mass shootings connected back to people who have spent time on Stormfront over the last decade.

And the reaction is mostly that, well, this probably isn't quite the way to go about it. He went a little too far. We don't really believe in going into a synagogue and murdering people. But the people who are really to blame is not necessarily the shooter himself but are globalists and Jews who have worked to bring immigrants in here. And if you continue to bring in all of these immigrants and you continue to have a, quote, unquote, "white genocide" underway, then you have to expect that every now and then somebody is going to get frustrated and act irrationally. That's the main reaction.

GROSS: So, Eli, have you spoken with either Don or Derek Black since the shooting at the synagogue yesterday?

SASLOW: Yeah, I've exchanged messages with Derek in particular. You know, and I think that he's heartbroken. And it's much more complicated than that for him because I think every time something like this happens he feels in small ways culpable. And he wonders, you know, how much of the re-messaging that he did in terms of white nationalism plays into, you know, incidents like this. Derek was central to creating the phrase white genocide and to popularizing that in the movement. So to then have somebody go into a synagogue and murder 11 people and leave that building saying the phrase that you yourself spread again and again on the radio for years in your young life is - I think it's haunting.

GROSS: Eli Saslow is the author of the book "Rising Out Of Hatred" about Derek Black, a former white nationalist whose father, Don Black, founded the Internet's largest white nationalist site, Stormfront. When the book was published in September, I spoke with Derek Black and Eli Saslow. We'll hear that interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. The social media posts and statements made by Robert Bowers, who shot and killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, echo the views of the white nationalist movement. We're going to hear an excerpt from the interview I recorded in September about that movement with Derek Black, who had been one of the young leaders of the movement before renouncing those views when he was 22. He helped popularize some of the buzz words used by Bowers.

Derek's father, Don Black, is a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and founded the largest white nationalist website, Stormfront. Derek Black is the subject of the book "Rising Out Of Hatred" by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who we heard from earlier in the show. My interview with Black also included Saslow. The first question was addressed to Derek Black.


GROSS: So you were part of the rebranding process from white supremacy to white nationalism, white supremacy meaning white people are better than. White nationalism kind of toned it down to - it's like, it's not that we're better than, but we're all better off being separated by race. It's like it's...

DEREK BLACK: Yeah. My dad popularized...

GROSS: ...Good for everyone.

BLACK: ...The term white nationalism.

GROSS: And so that was his thing?

BLACK: Yeah. He didn't invent it, but he was for it. He was the main group that really popularized it and one of the earliest ones to adopt it. And when he founded Stormfront, he called it a white nationalist community. And he saw the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy as being one that - he didn't want anything bad for anyone else. He just wanted everybody to be forcibly put in different spaces and that that was not about superiority. It was just about the well-being of everybody. And that that's - that was what he thought was the difference there. And, you know, looking back on it, that is - it's totally irrational. Like, how exactly do you think you're going to forcibly separate everybody and that that's not supremacy?

GROSS: Can I just interrupt for a second? I've always wanted to know the early people who rebranded white supremacy to white nationalism - whether they saw that as, like, a smart move to help mainstream the movement and make it more palatable or whether they really believed that there was a difference between white supremacy and white nationalism?

BLACK: They really did believe they were not doing bad things to other people, that the accusations of violence and hatred and racism were just insults put towards them and that they really did just want what's best for white people and then by extension other people. And it may be unpleasant to do that, but really, in the long run, everything's going to be much better. The answer for what they thought rebranding it would do was that they believed America was founded as a white supremacist country and that that was not gone, that the civil rights movement had changed the language and it made it much more difficult to speak about race. And their job was just to give people a space to say racist ideas in a more explicit, proud, confident way.

GROSS: The assumption was everybody is basically - all white people are basically racist. They're just afraid to express it. So let's give them a language and a safe space.

BLACK: So they don't like the word racist. They think that's a made-up, insult word. They...

GROSS: What's the cleansed word?

SASLOW: Racialist...

BLACK: Racialist.

SASLOW: ...Was something that they used for a while.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Subtle.

BLACK: Yeah.

SASLOW: Over the years, if you look at the language in terms of how many people in this movement have identified themselves, it went from the KKK to white supremacist to white power to white pride to white nationalist, and so every time becoming a little bit more subtle and a little bit more pernicious. I think that the thing that's complicated now when we talk about white nationalist versus white supremacy is that white nationalism, I think, effectively identifies a movement of people who are actively pursuing an end cause of separating, you know, races into different homelands.

And white supremacy, unfortunately, is something that's much more endemic and much more structured into what the country is. So if we're talking about these people as white supremacists, it doesn't quite distinguish the movement in the same way because much of the country was founded on things that are white supremacist, and many of our structures, you know, are based on white supremacy. So that's the distinction sometimes in the language that, I think, is still effective and useful for us as we talk about it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in September with Derek Black, a former young leader of the white nationalist movement who has since renounced those views, and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow who wrote a book about Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred." We'll hear more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're listening back to an interview from September that feels especially relevant today because of Saturday's massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Statements made by the shooter, Robert Bowers, echo the views of the white nationalist movement. The interview we're listening to is with Derek Black who was a young leader of the movement before renouncing his views when he was 22. His father, Don Black, is a former KKK grand wizard and founded the largest white supremacist website, Stormfront. Also featured in this interview is Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, the author of a book about Derek Black and white nationalism called "Rising Out Of Hatred." This next question was directed to Derek.


GROSS: So the white nationalist movement has an end goal, which is to separate the races for the good of everybody. And your father actually tried to enact that goal by trying to plan an overthrow of the government and of the people of a small Caribbean island, Dominica, to create, like, a white utopia there. He and some, you know, white nationalist buddies were armed. They were in their car, like, with ammunition driving to the ship when they were stopped by law enforcement agents. And your father spent three years in prison. So he - I mean, he really deeply bought the idea that you could create this, like, white nationalist utopia.

BLACK: Yeah. Yeah. He - from the time he was a teenager. He was raised in civil rights era Alabama. And everybody around him had sort of normal, casual Southern racist ideas about segregation. And what distinguished him was a feeling that it was not just an unfortunate thing that the schools are being integrated but that it was a cataclysmic moment that was going to lead to a minority-white America and it was going to end Western civilization and that he had to do something. He had to dedicate his life to making people aware of that. And the distinguishing factor for him was how extreme he thought the problem was and how far forward he was thinking about it.

GROSS: So, Derek, what was your vision for white nationalism? What did you foresee? You weren't going to try to overthrow a Caribbean island and create a white utopia there. That failed for your father. But did you have an alternate plan for, like, a white space for white people to be independent of anybody of any race and not have to suffer interactions with them?

BLACK: Yeah. I was convinced that there was a lot of latent support for the tenets of white nationalism, that race was super important and that immigration from non-European countries was making things worse and that people believed that in large numbers and would vote for that. And I was born just as David Duke was winning his first campaign in Louisiana in 1989. And my dad was on the road coming back because my mother was in labor. And so I...

GROSS: With you?

BLACK: ...Knew I - yeah, labor with me. And so I knew from the time that I was a child that white nationalism, as long as it was not necessarily calling itself white nationalism, could win campaigns. So I did things like run little Republican county elections, demonstrate that I could win with the majority of the vote for white nationalist talking points in a very normal South Florida neighborhood. And I ran training sessions on how people could hone their message to try to get that audience, not freak people out and just tap into things like, don't you think all these Spanish signs on the highway are making everything worse? And don't you think political correctness is just not letting you talk about things that are real? And getting people to agree on that would be the way forward.

GROSS: And you won a local election as a member of the West Palm Beach County Republican Committee. But they wouldn't let you take your seat because of your views. So did that - did you feel like that foils your plans for, like, a takeover of the Republican Party?

BLACK: It foiled my plans for being on the administration of the Republican Party and its decision-making in Palm Beach County. But winning the election was always the real goal. It was just trying to prove that I could walk around and organize a campaign and go door-to-door and say everything that white nationalists believed or at least 90 percent of it without saying what the organization my dad ran was and that I could win on that. The point was always to show that that could still work and that in the same year that Barack Obama was running his campaign and was going to win the presidency, that that was a good time to start advocating white nationalist talking points - that Barack Obama winning was a sign that white people would start voting more strongly on racist ideas, not less.

GROSS: Eli, put that into context for us. Was there - was Derek, like, the only person then who was thinking that thought, that with Obama running for president and then becoming a president, this was, like, an opportunity for white nationalists?

SASLOW: I think a lot of white nationalists saw President Obama's election as a huge opportunity for their movement because what white nationalists have done, with dangerous effect, is play to this factually incorrect sense of grievance that exists, unfortunately, in large parts of white America. Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. But by feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of, your country is being taken away - things are changing - this is turning into a place that you don't recognize - we don't need this kind of immigration - we don't want these signs in Spanish - that has a huge effect with a lot of voters. And it's what got Derek elected. And it's what has gotten other politicians elected in our country, as well.

GROSS: Without identifying as white nationalist, without outright saying, hey, I'm a white nationalist; the races should be separated.

SASLOW: Exactly. Right. I think most white people do not want to be called racist. But many white people do have racist views. And by having these conversations when they're not explicitly about race, and they don't involve slurs, white nationalists can connect with a certain number of voters. Derek and his father did some things to this effect that I thought were really interesting in reporting the book, one of which is they - Stormfront invested a lot of money into recording some country CDs. They were slightly more explicitly white pride than what you'd see in mainstream country music. And they would go to big country concerts that were attended by majority-white crowds in the South - an Alan Jackson concert somewhere in the Deep South. And they would go into the parking lot. And they would hand out these CDs, sort of subtly spreading these messages of more white pride songs to an audience that they thought was going to be more receptive to that message.

GROSS: So we were talking about how white supremacy kind of was rebranded into white nationalism. And the goal of white nationalism is to separate the races. There are other ways that white nationalist racism has been rebranded. And, Derek, I mean, among the things that I think you tried to do was take some of the violence out of the rhetoric. So can you talk about that a little bit?

BLACK: I think one of the most effective things that I and some people I was working with - pretty small little group of people who I had met while doing Internet radio - we would organize little teams that are apparently online hit squads that would go to any article that had anything to do with race and post some carefully done talking points. We developed things like the phrase white genocide, saying that all nonwhite immigration into white countries is white genocide and would talk about white pride, would talk - things like saying anti-racism is a code word for anti-white. And try to keep people on pretty tight talking points and send them out to try to change the conversation anywhere on the Internet where it was happening because we were focused really intently on changing the language and trying to make it comfortable for people who did not want to be called racist to say everything else that white nationalists said.

GROSS: I find it really interesting that you and your father tried to cleanse the violence, the violent language and rhetoric out of white nationalism or white supremacy. And yet, Derek, you were describing that you were trying to emphasize that immigration would lead to white genocide, that white people - like, these other guys coming in - they're going to kill all of us. That's really violent language. It's not about you committing the violence, but it's about all the other people who aren't white committing violence, committing murder, committing genocide against you. So it's still the language of violence. You just changed who the actors are.

BLACK: And who the victims are.

GROSS: And who the victims are. Exactly.

BLACK: And this was a long process - that immigration was just going to outnumber white people in all their countries. And that that was a threat to all the normal white people who were listening to the radio show or who were posting in the comments section - and that quite unlike what they were being told, they were the aggressors, that they were the people who were making society worse...

GROSS: Yeah, but you were talking about genocide.

BLACK: ...That they were actually being attacked.

GROSS: It's not like, oh, the immigrants are going to take our jobs or they're going to speak a foreign language; we're not going to understand it, and American culture, you know, won't be, quote, "pure." You're talking about, like, genocide - like, they are going to kill all of us. We will no longer exist.

BLACK: The talking point about white genocide was usually a little bit less extreme than it sounded. It was that immigration was an attack on whiteness and white people and white kids and that future generations wouldn't be able to have as good of lives as their parents had had because society was trying to undermine their opportunities and to hurt them. And that far from having white privilege, that they were being discriminated against at every turn. And so a hundred years from now, that they wouldn't have a place in this world.

SASLOW: I think it's important to note also that the entire ideology - the endpoint of the ideology - is built on a fallacy. And for me, when I was reporting and spending time with white nationalists, I would press them on, what do you mean that you want to separate people of different races into different places? Like, what percent white is OK? What percent Native is OK? What percent Jewish? They don't know. They don't - they have no idea. So - which I think gets to the core issue that race is a nebulous thing that is - that even white nationalists, when pressed, have a very difficult time defining.

BLACK: I think there was a really good example from the moderator discussion forums, which were never public. And huge debates would come on Stormfront among the moderators about, how are we going to handle this issue? How are we going to handle feminism, women's issues? How are we going to do this or that? And one of those was, how are we going to define who's white? Because only a white person could be a member of Stormfront, but there's no biological definition of white.

And so that was very clear. There's no way to say what's the 23andMe definition even if that had been around at the time. And there's no biological line because if you walk from northwestern Europe into southeastern Asia, you'll never see the line where white ends and where something else starts. And everybody was very clear on that.

So the conclusion - the only practical conclusion they could come to as to who is white was that you had to generally be considered visually white by most people in America, and you personally had to define yourself as a white person. And if you did that, then you're white. And that was the only way that they could come to - after thousands of posts to define, what does a white person even mean?

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in September with Derek Black, a former white nationalist leader, and Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, the author of a book about Derek Black and white nationalism called "Rising Out Of Hatred." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded in September with Derek Black, a former white nationalist leader who renounced his views when he was 22. His father, Don Black, is a former KKK grand wizard and founded the white nationalist website Stormfront. We're also hearing from Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, the author of a book about Derek Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred."


GROSS: So, Derek, one of the things you did - you had been home-schooled, so you were pretty isolated from any beliefs outside of your family's racist views. But then you went to college. And from the way Eli describes it in the book, it was a pretty liberal college in Florida. There were Jewish people there. You initially tried to hide your identity and then figured you might as well let people know before you were outed by somebody else. You placed a magazine (laughter) - you placed a publication with an article by you in the gym so that people would find it and realize, oh, God, that's Derek Black.

So after you kind of outed yourself and after having befriended people who were, you know, Jewish and gay and who were, you know, very upset when they found out who you really are, you had Jewish friends who reached out to you. You even had a girlfriend who you dated who you didn't initially know was Jewish. What are some of the things that Jewish friends said to you that made sense to you, that you hadn't been exposed to before and you thought, maybe there's some legitimacy here?

BLACK: I think it's very interesting that Matthew Stevenson and Moshe Ash, who were the people who invited me to Matthew's Shabbat dinners, took the strategy that I think was very, very smart of not talking to me about it. I went to those dinners for two years, and white nationalism never came up while every other thing that we were possibly interested in did.

And I think the - Matthew said that the reason for that was that it would have been not as effective at allowing me to see him and dinners as people, that when my family is talking about something anti-Semitic, that we're not talking about something abstract. We're talking about him. We're talking about his life, and this is very human. And he wanted to demonstrate that. And even if nothing else came from it, it would just be that it was a person who we were thinking about when we were thinking about Jewish people. And...

GROSS: So is that effective? Like, actually meeting Jewish people and having Jewish friends, did you see, you know, Jewish people in general as being human in a way that you hadn't before?

BLACK: Yeah. I think that was actually one of the things that changed about my beliefs earliest, was that the Jewish conspiracy part of white nationalism was a little bit loose and nuts and unnecessary. That didn't undermine the firm belief in racial difference. And there are actually white nationalist groups that already believe that, that, oh, of course Jewish people are white. So it didn't undermine all of white nationalism. But it - I think it was actually pretty early where I said, this is crazy; we need to stop attacking Jewish people, back off.

SASLOW: In addition to being the story of Derek's transformation, I mean, I think the book is also the story of the real courage shown by a lot of students on this campus who invested themselves in trying to effect, you know, profound change. And they did that in a lot of different ways. I mean, there was civil resistance on campus by a group of students who organized a school shutdown and shut down the school and sort of cast Derek out and made it clear to him how awful and how hateful and how hurtful this ideology was.

And it was also students like Allison, eventually his girlfriend, who won his trust, built a relationship but also armored herself with the facts and sort of, like, point by point went through and showed how this ideology is built on total misinformation. And then there were also students like Matthew and Moshe who in a remarkable act invited Derek over week after week after week not to build the case against him but to build the relationship, hoping that just by spending more and more time with them, he would be able to begin seeing past the stereotypes to the people and to the humanity and hoping that a relationship in and of itself could be transformative.

And I think it's important to note that that did not happen quickly and that they knew the full horror of a lot of the beliefs of this ideology and the things that Derek had said. Matthew and Moshe in between these dinners would sometimes go back through Derek's old messages on the Stormfront site. And they would see the horrible things that he had said about Jews. And in Moshe's case...

GROSS: What kind of things? Yeah.

SASLOW: Jews wormed their way into control over our society. Jews must go. All Jews must go. You know, in the white nationalist ideology, in, like, the awful pyramid of beliefs, Jews are at the top as enemy No. 1 because I think white nationalists believe that Jews have propagated a scheme of multiculturalism and are sort of the No. 1 enemy of what white nationalists would define as the white race.

And so Matthew and Moshe had also in their own lives experienced large degrees of anti-Semitism. In Moshe's case, he's from a family of Hungarian Jews that was all but wiped out by the Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen. And that was the definitive experience of his young life, was growing up in an Orthodox community that was largely defined by an incredible history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

And Moshe had gone and traveled to these concentration camps and had learned German to connect with his father's history. And Derek had also learned German because of his very divergent family history. And the fact that the two of them week after week were sitting at the same table, sometimes having conversations in the German that they'd learned because of these incredibly divergent family histories, began to have an effect.

GROSS: There's a lot of Holocaust denying within the white nationalist movement. Can you explain to me how it's possible to believe in the first place that the Holocaust didn't happen?

BLACK: It is because you go to history conferences with people who do have history credentials, who have taught at universities, who have written books that are published and who are respected in some kind of circle or were at some point in their life. And then you all sit around, and they say, here, let me show you 15 reasons why the Holocaust didn't happen. And then people just sort of buy into it.

GROSS: After Charlottesville - and the march had a lot of, you know, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, whatever you want to call them. And I'm sure it was, like, a mix of racist and anti-Semitic people who were represented there. The president blamed both sides for being violent. And how did that resonate with white nationalists?

BLACK: I think it was a clarion moment. And over the last year, Charlottesville has proved to be a very bad moment for them. And everything was bad about it. It was bad PR because it was gross because normal people wouldn't want to be involved in a disgusting brawl in the streets or to see swastika flags or to see this sort of just bad scene. Everything was bad about it in terms of PR except for the fact that the president of the United States tried to salvage what they were saying. They showed up to say that Confederate memorials are American history and they represent white history, and that taking them down is an attack on white people. And that's what they wanted to say. And it all got lost in the chaos and the violence and the disorganization. And the only thing that redeemed it was the fact that the president was on their side - or at least it seemed that way.

GROSS: Derek Black is a former leader of the white nationalist movement who has renounced those views. Eli Saslow is the author of a book about Black called "Rising Out Of Hatred." Our interview was recorded in September. We'll hear more of the new interview I recorded this morning with Saslow about Saturday's massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're going to hear more of the interview that we opened today's show with, the interview I recorded this morning about Saturday's massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue with Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who is also the author of the book "Rising Out Of Hatred." It's about white nationalism and one of its former young leaders.

Anti-Semitic crimes are on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League's annual report said that the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged 57 percent in 2017. That's the highest percentage since they started tracking anti-Semitic crimes in 1979. The president has stirred up a lot of fear about immigrants from Mexico, from Guatemala and Honduras in the so-called caravan. Immigrants from Muslim countries he's very concerned about and has stirred up a lot of fear about. But we have a homegrown hate movement in the United States, and the mass shooting at the synagogue is just the most recent example of it.

How seriously do you think we need to take this homegrown hate movement? And do you think that we as a nation and that our government is taking it seriously enough?

SASLOW: I don't think we're taking it seriously enough. I'm not sure it would be possible to take it seriously enough. I think it's, you know, potentially the greatest threat that we face. Just if you look at last week, with three major incidents of far-right extremist, you know, terrorism in our country, I think that that's a much more real threat than, for instance, a caravan of immigrants that's thousands of miles away and that is hoping to potentially come here and get jobs. And I think that...

GROSS: Let's throw Charlottesville in the mix, of course.

SASLOW: Yeah, of course. The other thing is that among these really avowed white nationalist groups - I didn't really understand when I began reporting this book that white nationalists tend to blame Jews for almost everything. And, you know - and so I think when we see something like the ADL report saying that last year was one of the largest years for threats and threats of violence against Jews - I think there were almost 2,000 incidents - it's unfortunately not surprising to me because these are the people that white nationalists believe are working hard to undermine our country through bringing in immigrants, through, you know, hoping to bring more refugees to the country, through trying to empower people of color in the country. So they get a lot of the violent backlash from these white supremacist ideas.

GROSS: Is this an unnerving time for you, Eli?

SASLOW: Yeah, it's a hugely unnerving time for me, in part because when something like the synagogue shooting happens, I feel haunted and depressed, but I don't feel shocked. You know, in order to feel shocked, you have to be surprised. And, unfortunately, these kind of incidents are not surprising to me anymore. In fact, it seems like there's a certain kind of inevitability. That's true in terms of mass shootings in general that this country has not been able to address or solve. But it's also increasingly true in terms of real acts of hate. You know, I don't think that this will be the last one. And I think, probably like a lot of us, I sort of live in fear and with a sense of dread of when is the next horrible thing like this going to happen.

GROSS: Eli Saslow, thank you so much for talking with us. And be well.

SASLOW: Thank you.

GROSS: Eli Saslow is the author of the book "Rising Out Of Hatred." Our interview was recorded this morning.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature our postponed interview with Jonah Hill, who first became known for his roles in films directed and/or produced by Judd Apatow like "Superbad" and "Knocked Up." He co-starred in "Moneyball" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street." He wrote and directed the new film "Mid90s" about a group of skateboarders in the mid-1990s. That's the period when a young Jonah Hill was part of a group of skateboarders. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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