Campus Free Speech

This Racist Student's Conversion Is the Best Argument Against Safe Space Culture

Derek Black was a white nationalist. Now he's a liberal anti-racist. What changed him? Free speech.


Alexander Raths

Derek Black used to be an up-and-coming leader of the white nationalist movement. His father created Stormfront, the online forums for the white nationalist community. His godfather is David Duke.

That was then. Black is now a liberal who supports immigration, doesn't believe race should divide people, and admires President Obama.

The story of Derek's incredible transformation is many things: a lesson to never give up on people, an affirmation of the power of reason to undermine racism, an inspirational tale of good winning out in the end. But it's also a subtle repudiation of the kind of emotional safe space that liberals want to foist on college campuses. Indeed, if this faction of the left got its way, people like Derek would probably never be allowed on campus in the first place. Derek himself might still be an ardent racist.

The Washington Post's story on Black is worth reading in full—it's one of the very best things you'll read this year. To summarize Derek's childhood: His father, Don Black, was a former Ku Klux Klan member who founded Stormfront and kept close ties to David Duke; Duke, in fact, was Derek's godfather and former romantic partner of his mother; Derek spent his teenage years travelling with his father, meeting other white supremacists, giving speeches, and learning web coding so that he could help run Stormfront. Derek was essentially groomed from birth to lead the white nationalist community—a calling he was eager to heed:

So many others in white nationalism had come to their conclusions out of anger and fear, but Derek tended to like most people he met, regardless of race. Instead, he sought out logic and science to confirm his worldview, reading studies from conservative think tanks about biological differences between races, IQ disparities and rates of violent crime committed by blacks against whites. He launched a daily radio show to share his views, and Don paid $275 each week to have it broadcast on the AM station in nearby Lake Worth. On the air, Derek helped popularize the idea of a white genocide, that whites were losing their culture and traditions to massive, nonwhite immigration. "If we say it a thousand times—'White genocide! We are losing control of our country!'—politicians are going to start saying it, too," he said. He repeated the idea in interviews, Stormfront posts and during his speech at the conference in Memphis, when he was at his most certain.

After high school, Derek decided to enroll in the New College to study history. He decided to keep a low profile: He wouldn't share his views with anyone until after he had made friends. He enjoyed his first semester, and felt like he fit in. But eventually, the campus learned exactly who he was. His friends were shocked. Many people on campus wanted to ostracize him. Others threatened him.

But some students had another idea:

"Ostracizing Derek won't accomplish anything," one student wrote.

"We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights."

"Who's clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy's mind?"

One of Derek's acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek's radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.

"What are you doing Friday night?" he wrote.

That friend was Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, and his idea was to invite Derek over for weekly Shabbat dinners attended by a small gathering of students.

The idea worked:

Some members of the Shabbat group gradually began to ask Derek about his views, and he occasionally clarified them in conversations and emails throughout 2011 and 2012. He said he was pro-choice on abortion. He said he was against the death penalty. He said he didn't believe in violence or the KKK or Nazism or even white supremacy, which he insisted was different from white nationalism. He wrote in an email that his only concern was that "massive immigration and forced integration" was going to result in a white genocide. He said he believed in the rights of all races but thought each was better off in its own homeland, living separately.

Week by week, conversation by conversation, Derek softened his views. His new friends challenged him—firmly but politely—and systematically convinced him that he was wrong about everything.

I'm really short-changing an amazing narrative here, so please don't rely on my summary: Read the thing.

My point is this: I have no doubt that the kind of campus-wide public safe space favored by some students at Yale (for instance) would have excluded someone like Derek. These students would have balked at the idea of letting Derek enroll in college at all. They would have described him as a threat to their safety—a person whose very presence on campus was a reminder of both their marginalization and the administration's failure to act. Remember that the Yale mob wanted Nicholas and Erika Christakis to resign because they didn't think the college should take a strong position on offensive Halloween costumes. I can only imagine the mob being even more upset about someone like Derek setting foot on campus.

But giving these students what they want would have made it impossible to have those Shabbat dinners. Ostracizing Derek wouldn't have made him any less racist: on the contrary, it would have driven him further into the arms of the white nationalist movement.

Leftist students accuse supporters of free speech of wanting to shield racism. The truth is exactly the opposite: I support absolute free speech precisely because I want to destroy racism. Good ideas—like racial equality—are at their most powerful when speech is unrestricted.