Growing up, I imagined I could easily spot the racists around me. They were the ones proudly displaying the Confederate flag across the back of their pickup trucks or blatantly disregarding other people based on the color of their skin. I looked at them and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t been born into that kind of family or raised in that distorted version of Christianity.
But then I started to realize how much I had profited from systems designed to benefit people who looked more like me than my husband, an African American man, or our mixed-race sons. Like many of my European American brothers and sisters, I began awakening to my own racial identity. And that meant confronting the racist within me, lamenting the many ways I had been an oppressor to the marginalized.
When I say this, it makes me realize I’m not radically different from someone like Derek Black, once dubbed the “White Power Prodigy.” Raised in a culture of white supremacy, he seemed fated to become the next leader of the white nationalist movement. His father founded the notorious white supremacist website Stormfront.org, and his godfather was none other than David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard.
But as journalist Eli Saslow shows in Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, when Black left home to attend New College of Florida, he underwent a most unlikely moral transformation—a change birthed by the power of relationships.
A Secret Exposed
As a Christian, I often fling the word relationships around without much of a thought. But relationships are at the heart of the gospel. Because God first loved us, followers of Jesus are commanded, above all things, to love God and love other people (Mark 12:30–31). On these relationships we center our lives. And as we give ourselves over to them, they can end up changing us in unexpected ways—a truth to which Derek Black can powerfully attest.
When Black first arrived on campus as a 19-year-old homeschool transfer, he flew under the radar. Pursuing a double major in German and medieval history (subjects he associated with white European dominance), he didn’t advertise his upbringing or his involvement with white nationalism. Unbeknownst to his peers, he continued moderating the world’s largest white-pride website, stealing away five mornings a week to call into the radio show he cohosted with his father. There, he theorized about “the criminal nature of blacks” and the “inferior natural intelligence of blacks and Hispanics,” among other speculations.
By the time his secret was exposed and he returned to campus after a semester abroad in Germany, Black felt free not to live a double life anymore. After all, his godfather, David Duke, had provoked outrage in college when he began speaking every Wednesday in Free Speech Alley. Liberated and spurred on by the hatred of his peers, the budding grand wizard no longer worried about whether he was liked.
Black was different, though. Feelings of isolation and rejection overwhelmed him. (The administration, after learning about his beliefs, had chosen to let him remain enrolled, so long as he didn’t threaten anyone’s safety. Officials took to classifying the controversy as a “student-life matter.”) Campus activists were adamant that the best way to engage the racist in their midst was to disengage entirely. Saslow quotes one of their directives: “Do not make eye contact or make him feel acknowledged at all. Make him as irrelevant as his ideology.”
But despite this wall of hostility (and the distancing effect of his own toxic prejudices), Black befriended a number of students from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Two Jewish brothers started inviting him to their weekly Shabbat [Jewish sabbath] dinner—even after his white-supremacist identity had been discovered. Desperate for companionship, Black accepted their invitation. No one had any illusions of swiftly persuading him to renounce white nationalism; they sought only to establish a foundation of mutual respect so that Black might actually see the enemy he had so long despised. As one of the hosts later mused to Saslow, “The goal was really just to make Jews more human for him.”
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Source: Christianity Today