In March, the Jewish Federation of San Antonio postponed its second biennial gala fundraiser as the coronavirus pandemic descended on the city. With the delay of the benefit event – now scheduled for Tuesday, one week before the Nov. 3 presidential election – the issues at its heart have only become more urgent.
So said Nehemia “Nammie” Ichilov, interim CEO and director of the Federation’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, of its “For Hope For Humanity” benefit featuring Eli Saslow, author of the 2018 book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.
“The [political] climate in the United States is such that the message of Eli Saslow’s book has more pertinence today than it did only a few months ago,” Ichilov said.
Rising Out of Hatred charts the origins and growth of white supremacist ideologies in the U.S. and offers a glimmer of redemption for the future.
Together, Saslow’s book and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s educational message have “all the more impact and reason for sharing in today’s world,” Ichilov said.
San Antonio Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard will interview Saslow on Facebook Live at 7 p.m. Tuesday as the culminating event of the the Jewish Federation’s museum benefit.
The featured conversation with Saslow and Rivard and a 5:30 p.m. streamed event honoring North East Independent School District educator Sheriden De Castro are free, with RSVP requested. A 6:20 p.m. cocktail hour with Saslow and San Antonio journalist Leslie Bohl is accessible to sponsors and ticketed guests.
Eva Laporte, the federation’s director of marketing and communications, said generous donors helped make the event free and accessible, in part to raise awareness of the education programming of the only Holocaust-themed museum in South Texas.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 led to a sharp rise in white supremacist and white nationalist hate groups, including those that closely followed then-reality TV star Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship. Now, with the election looming after a campaign driven in part by white supremacist rhetoric, Saslow agreed with Ichilov that the story told in his book is perhaps more relevant today than when it was written.
“Honestly, tragically,” he said of its subject’s timeliness. “I never could have imagined how timely it would be. And frankly it’s not a subject that you’d want to be timely.”
Saslow said an alarming rise in white supremacist rhetoric and violence “over not just the last, three, four years, but particularly over the last six, seven months, is fairly staggering.”
Described by one reviewer as “a double portrait: of a worse America, and of a better one,” Rising Out of Hatred follows one young white nationalist’s evolution from hate to hope and offers a potential path for individuals, and the nation, to follow, Saslow said.
“For all of us, some of the essential work of the moment is figuring out what what we do to confront [racist] ideas” and ideology, he said.
The Rising Out of Hatred book grew out of Saslow’s 2016 Washington Post story about the transformation of Derek Black, who entered college as an eager proponent of his father Don Black’s virulent white nationalism.
Once a KKK grand wizard, the elder Black started the Stormfront.org white supremacist web forum in 1995 after learning computer programming in federal prison. The site quickly became a clearinghouse for Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic tropes, complaints of white genocide, anti-immigration messaging, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and other white supremacist tenets.
Saslow first learned of Stormfront after reporting on a string of white nationalist terrorist attacks in the U.S., including the 2015 mass murder of nine African Americans during a bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, with the stated intent of starting a race war.
The killer had learned what Saslow termed his “crazy ideas” on Stormfront and worked to spread them on that forum before his attack. The massacre garnered “horrific celebratory” comments on the site following the massacre, Saslow said.
“Stormfront is huge,” Saslow said. “For the last 20 years, it’s been the epicenter of racism globally on the internet. It has 300,000 active users. It’s translated every day into four different languages. It’s a behemoth of a community.”
Despite the horrors he’d been researching, Saslow glimpsed a ray of hope in commentary about Derek Black, who had sent a public letter repudiating his racist past to the Southern Poverty Law Center, considered an enemy by the Stormfront community.
“They were wondering what the hell happened to take the future heir to the white supremacist movement and move him so far ideologically to the other side,” Saslow said. “That provoked my curiosity, too.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter admits to experiencing fatigue covering the difficult subject.
“I was also probably tired and depressed by writing about people who had radicalized and transformed in the other direction, like disaffected white kids who had become increasingly racist and done horrific things,” he said. “So the idea of trying to figure out how somebody had gone in the opposite direction – and what it what it brought about – that really intrigued me.”
What started as a 6,250-word newspaper article published just before Trump won the presidency became Saslow’s 300-page book.
One reason to expand the story into a book is that Saslow felt describing such a near-unbelievable transformation from avowed racist to activist anti-racist in the shorter form “almost strains credibility. … It’s a more believable and a more real transformation the more room you have to tell it.”
Black’s ideological change occurred after his racist views were exposed at New College, the Florida liberal arts college where he was a student.
At first he was ostracized, returning to social life only after being invited to weekly Shabbat dinners by Matthew Stevenson, school’s the only Orthodox Jewish student. By Stevenson’s request, the diverse group of attendees reserved their judgments and avoided ideological talk. Attendees gradually established trust and grew to a level of comfort where difficult topics could be broached.
Simply being exposed to people with different viewpoints from his closed family circle and its tightly knit community of ideologues changed Black’s perspective. Eventually, he decided to give voice to his new realizations, disavowing his past racism and becoming an outspoken anti-racist, to the consternation of his family.
Writing the book afforded Saslow the opportunity to look further into the roots of modern white supremacist movement, as it became apparent that the movement had reached the mainstream of American life.
“Six weeks after that story ran … Donald Trump won on a platform that had a lot of white supremacist ideas that a lot of people in Stormfront were championing. These groups were hugely activated by his candidacy,” Saslow said. “So it was also sort of [an] affirmation to me that this is really important and urgent, and it’s worth it’s worth going off and spending a year on.”
Saslow won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his reporting on food stamps in America, and has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic. He now sees white supremacy as a main ingredient in the systemic inequality in access to health care and life expectancy that has disproportionately affected people of color, recently exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There’s so much statistical evidence of the way in which the United States has empowered and privileged and prioritized white people, but I think this pandemic, again, has made clear in terms of who can afford to stay home, and who can afford to stay well,” he said.
Saslow cited polls that show 40 percent of white people in the United States believe they experience more prejudice and discrimination than people of color, which he finds offensive. “But the fact that [so] much false white grievance continues to exist allows for these racist talking points to have real political power, when they’re marketed in a way that scrubs them from their language of bloodshed.”
For the country to move beyond its problems, Saslow said, it must “be more honest about where these hateful ideas really come from. And certainly, Holocaust education is a part of that.”
Though peaceful dialogue might seem a lost commodity in current political discourse, Ichilov said Rising out of Hatred demonstrates that bridging seemingly insurmountable gaps in ideology remains possible.
Though “we’ve lost our capacity to trust somebody who doesn’t believe the same thing as me,” he said, “this book shows how to get through that process.”
This article has been updated to correct details of Eli Saslow’s interview with San Antonio Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard.