Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Eli Saslow shared how meaningful anti-racist movements can begin on campuses like Boston College’s.
“The story I’m going to tell you about tonight, it really took place on a campus very similar to yours,” Saslow said.
BC’s Lowell Humanities Series hosted Saslow, a reporter for the The Washington Post, on Feb. 23. During his lecture, Saslow reflected on his book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist and participated in a question-and-answer session over Zoom.
According to Saslow, his interest in how political issues impact people’s lives in the United States led him to investigate the increasing number of terrorist attacks committed by white supremacist individuals and groups.
“The FBI and our own government acknowledge that the greatest terrorism threat in America is coming from within—from these white nationalist, white supremacist groups,” Saslow said.
Over the last six years, Saslow has investigated several white supremacist shootings. While in South Carolina, he reported on Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who entered a church and murdered 10 people in a self-proclaimed effort to start a race war, Saslow said
“I was there doing what I often do … and also trying to understand how Dylann Roof, a disaffected, young white kid, could come to such hateful and disastrous conclusions about race in modern America,” he said.
While researching Roof, Saslow said he discovered the website Stormfront, which has acted as a virtual hub for racism over the last two decades. The website allows neo-Nazis, former Klansmen, politicians, and racist academics to connect and share their racist ideologies with each other, he said.
“I went onto this site to see what they were saying about Dylann Roof … but what I also noticed was the largest thread on this message board, the one with thousands upon thousands of posts, was about someone named Derek Black,” he said.
Don Black, Black’s father, is the founder of Stormfront. According to Saslow, Don raised Black with his racist ideologies and made him the heir to the white supremacist movement through the prominent website.
“Derek [Black] decided very early on before getting [to college] that he was going to try to essentially live a double life,” Saslow said. “He was going to be the world’s most prominent young white supremacist on the radio and in public and in his speeches, but on campus, he was going to try and pass as a normal student.”
Saslow said Black attended New College of Florida, attempting to live this “double life” for almost a year. Once Black’s classmates uncovered his true identity, students sparked debate and protests across campus, calling for the university to expel Black or shut down entirely.
“Sustained efforts began to wear away all of the ideas that Derek [Black] had in his mind until really, he had become convinced that white supremacy was not only wrong … but also that it was massively harmful,” Saslow said. “Derek [Black] began to question everything he believed.”
According to Saslow, resistance, conversation, and relationship building helped Black abandon his racist ideologies. These are the foundations for confrontation and making an effective change on a broader scale, he said.
“In America, there is this big debate between … discourse and cancel culture,” Saslow said. “The truth is, I think both of these tactics can be effective, and sometimes actually, they’re symbiotic.”
On campus, Black’s identity was not a secret, allowing students to challenge his racist ideologies directly, Saslow said. With the rise of the internet and social media use, however, users can hide behind anonymous profiles.
“Unfortunately, there are instances on BC’s campus where anonymous postings have been put up about students, most recently about Asian students on campus,” said Janelle Nanos, a reporter for The Boston Globe who moderated the question-and-answer segment of the event.
Saslow encouraged students to organize campus conversations to start proactive education in response to anonymous hatred.
“Using those awful, hateful comments as an opportunity to educate—that’s a big piece of it,” Saslow said. “Not by bringing attention to it, but by bringing attention to the problem itself and how to correct it.”
Featured Image by Ben Schultz / Heights Staff