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Q&A with Eli Saslow, Author of “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist”

by: Eva Webber

Photo Courtesy of The Washington Post

Here at Pitt Greensburg, students may recognize the name Eli Saslow from their freshman or transfer seminar course, or from the flyers and emails announcing his arrival on Thursday, Oct. 13. Saslow is the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” To hear more from him, visit his Keynote Address occurring Thursday at noon in Ferguson Theater or follow this link to watch live.

Q: Why do you feel it is important for young people to hear Derek Black’s story?

A: Tragically, white supremacy is still a big part of the United States’ story, especially within the criminal justice system, politics, and domestic terrorism, like the shooting of black churches or synagogues. But Derek Black understands the movement as well as anyone in it. He grew up inside of it.

Q: Why should a place like Westmoreland County be exposed to the messages in “Rising Out of Hatred?”

A: We inherit many great things as Americans, but also a legacy of racism on which the country was built. Historically American government has worked to empower white men, and white supremacist rhetoric is everywhere. Westmoreland County is no different.

Q: Do you think that Derek Black is an exception to the rule among white nationalists for changing his beliefs? Or can most white nationalists be moved to a more accepting perspective?

A: Derek is an exception in many ways. It is pretty exceptional for a white nationalist to change, but having spoken with him as much as I did, I know him to be very intelligent and empathetic. And Derek was not a run-of-the-mill white supremacist. He grew up on these ideologies and was considered a prodigy by the KKK. To see him become one of the most prominent anti-racist activists in the country gives me hope.

Q: How do you expect white nationalism in the United States to evolve? Will it increase or decrease in popularity, become more violent or more passive?

A: The white supremacist movement has advanced more in the last decade than in the 40 years prior. Nazi paraphanelia, racist graffitti, terrorist attacks, and more explicitly, racist political identity speak to this. In the past five elections, white people have voted more and more as a group. And following this movement, white people- though whiteness is a tentative concept altogether- decided they are losing the country in an idea of white ownership and want to take it back more drastically.

Racist ideas can motivate large numbers of people, and I think particularly of the insurrection at the capital. They are not unrelated: confederate flags, holocaust denial, nazi propaganda… It is a politically motivating tool. A political or public figure says, “They [immigrants, the Jewish, POC, etc] are taking something away,” and weaponize that feeling.

Q: If you are comfortable answering, what has your experience with white nationalism been like as a jewish journalist?

My experience surrounding the book has been mainly negative. When interviewing figures like David Duke and other major members of the KKK or white supremacist groups, I have to take basic precautions, hold them in public, share my location, and generally be vigilant. After the book came out I had some cybersecurity threats.

But a much bigger concern of mine is for the people I write about. They are much more vulnerable. People of color or jewish students are already targeted by white supremacists, and their stories are made public in the book. I worried a lot for them and we discussed anonymity heavily, but all of them chose to share their names and take credit for their involvement.

Some of those people have had scares, online security issues, and been harassed as a result. I primarily want to support interviewees at risk.

Q: How do you suggest one should approach friends, family, or community members about racist or white nationalist beliefs?

A: It depends on your personal relationship. Take Derek’s transformation for example. In college, his friends of color or jewish descent who felt safe chose to reach out to him. You have a much better chance of impacting people who care about you. 

Those students that did not feel safe protested, excluded, and ostracized Derek to show him confrontation. It made him feel vulnerable and told him that other intelligent people, whose opinions he valued, could not accept his beliefs.

There is an idea that these methods of invitation and confrontation are in conflict with one another. But they are symbiotic, especially in Derek’s case. The huge portion of campus that rejected Derek softened him to those like Allison and others who reached out. Even Allison doubted what she should have done in retrospect, but it was effective.

So it isn’t just one method that works, there must be a mix of protest and empathetic outreach, but mainly taking action altogether. Not relying on indecision to control you, especially as white people, and not following a colorblind mindset but being honest and aware of the social implications of action and inaction.

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