We didn’t get it then, but we get it now

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- by Bill Woodson, Ph.D.


When alum Derek Black arrived on the campus of New College in 2010, it took little more than a semester for his connections to the white nationalist movement to be discovered by his classmates.

It has taken a decade for the New College community to discern how to respond to the presence of someone who was not just a member—but a prominent leader—of a movement whose fundamental values contrasted so sharply with how the College saw itself.

On January 27, I moderated a discussion called “Inclusion at Any Cost? When New College Was ‘Home’ to a White Nationalist,” which was part of the New College Foundation’s “New Topics New College 2020-2021” series. It featured Derek and fellow alumni Allison Gornik and James Birmingham.

I went into this conversation knowing there were many lessons to be learned—not just from the experience of Derek and his classmates, but from what New College and its leadership got right (and got wrong) in response to Derek’s presence on campus at the time.

This discernment—about the New College community’s response to Derek’s presence—required careful listening to those who felt their very existence threatened by the ideology that Derek once embraced.

During Derek’s years at New College, administrative leaders made the decision to resist student calls to expel him, despite his connection to the website, Stormfront. America’s first “white pride” website, Stormfront was created by his father and white nationalist movement leader, Don Black. When Derek came to New College, he was still active as a Stormfront site moderator and show host.

It was a humbling revelation, learning that it wasn’t just Derek’s presence but the absence of an institutional response—a failure to affirm institutional support for community members who believed white nationalist ideologies to be an existential threat—that left the community feeling unmoored.

By the end of our conversation, that long-delayed institutional affirmation was heard.

At the end of the day, Derek graduated from New College, not only with a degree in Medieval History but also with relationships and experiences that led him to renounce his white supremacist ideals. His departure left a distraught and conflicted New College in his wake.

But Derek’s acknowledgement of the harm his ideology had caused, despite his efforts to keep his white nationalist leadership activities and his New College life separate, were an important element of the healing our conversation helped to initiate. Just as important was his simple but heartfelt apology, which he offered to a professor who taught him German history and culture during his time at New College.

That, along with President Donal O’Shea’s acknowledgement of the further harm caused by institutional silence, were long-delayed but much appreciated steps towards healing and reconciliation.

The work will continue. But, at long last, the silence has been broken.

Bill Woodson, Ph.D., is the dean of outreach and chief diversity officer at New College.


Below, please find more information about New College’s January 27 discussion, “Inclusion at Any Cost? When New College Was ‘Home’ to a White Nationalist.” Included are biographies of the featured speakers and key, condensed points in the conversation.

The speakers:

R. Derek Black(’10-’13) was raised in a leading family of the American white nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, founded the first online white power community, Stormfront. From an early age, Black participated in media interviews, gave talks around the country, won public office, and ran a daily radio program in support of his family’s ideology. At New College, he was condemned by the campus community and, over several years, came to engage with antiracist ideas. He ultimately renounced his family’s ideology in 2013, and has since spoken out against the ideology of white supremacy. He is currently a doctoral student in history at the University of Chicago, researching the medieval and early modern origins of racist hierarchies and ideologies. Black is the subject of the 2018 book by Eli Saslow,Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.

Allison Gornik (’10-’14) of Ohio learned about Black’s white supremacist advocacy in much the same way as every other New College student, and condemned him in order to prioritize students who felt threatened. However, her suitemate, Matthew Stevenson, invited Black into their dorm room for his weekly Shabbat dinners. Although Gornik initially avoided the dinners with Black present, she eventually returned, and the two of them started to talk outside of Stevenson’s events. Through many private and often-painful conversations, Black eventually conceded that his ideology was not sound and that advocating it was actively harmful (which led him to renounce it). Gornik’s role in this story is a primary focus of Saslow’s book. Gornik is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship, having recently graduated with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She specializes in working with children and families, in both clinical and research settings.

James Birmingham (’06-’10) is a South Florida native and first-generation college graduate. He was working for the Office of Volunteerism and Service Learning as a VISTA volunteer at New College when word got out that Black was a student. Birmingham became a predominant and active voice in challenging Black’s presence on campus, and led critical campus-wide conversations on what having a prominent white nationalist at New College meant (which is detailed in Saslow’s book). Now an ex-Ph.D. student and craft bartender, Birmingham is working toward opening a worker-owned leftist bookstore café/social center. He is on the board of directors for the Institute for Anarchist Studies; co-founded the decade-long All Power to the Imagination! conference at New College; is a founding member of the Black Trowel Collective; and organizes with the North American Anarchist Studies Network. He resides in Sarasota with his partner, Tiffany; a dog named Waffles; and a cat named Grits.

The conversation:

At the beginning of the “Inclusion” discussion, New College President Don O’Shea shared these words with attendees: “This is our 60th anniversary year [at New College]. We are committed to becoming an ever-more-diverse and inclusive community, among all dimensions. And this means both looking forward and back. Tonight’s speakers will share their perspectives about a deeply challenging time in New College’s history and the implications of that experience.”

Woodson: It’s been interesting, Derek, to observe that your time as a New College student has been both celebrated as a success story and also vilified as a dark moment in New College history. I’m hoping that this conversation is an opportunity to explore this dichotomy. You were a very able student with a strong academic record, and you had a wide range of schools you could have chosen, so why did you choose New College?

Black: I want to say how just surreal this moment is. I think it was a decade ago that I came into New College and I don’t think, at that moment, I could have possibly imagined being on this panel for what we will talk about tonight. I’ve done various events at colleges and, usually, they feel emotional but a little bit analytical and clinical. This one is making my heart race a bit more than any other I’ve attended. [Coming to New College] was an academic decision. I had an adviser at a community college who brought my attention to the Medieval Studies program New College had. And it was not only the best in Florida but one of the best in the country for undergraduate medieval studies. It was just ridiculously appealing. And I wanted to study the middle ages, in part, because I thought that it was so remote from politics that I could sort of focus on it and no one could give me any controversial remarks. It had low tuition, it was in-state, and I almost hesitate to give the full answer (even here) because I never do and I worry about starting off on this foot. But I want to be fully honest. My family were white nationalist leaders. New College was very publicly a social-justice-oriented community, focused on antiracism. My parents were a little bit baffled that I wanted to go there, but one of the reasons that they supported it was the very high-majority white student population. My family saw that (even though it was very liberal) as a win for their ideology. And I think there’s a lesson there of what white supremacy means.

Woodson: Once your ideology—your activism—as a leader within the white nationalist movement became known to the New College community, there was a tremendous amount of resistance–a tremendous reaction–to your presence on the campus. Was that a surprise?

Black: It wasn’t a surprise after I got there. I didn’t know what to expect before I got there. I had lived a whole life of having this white nationalist activism. From the time I was 11, I was appearing on HBO and Nightline and doing these interviews. And I always kind of maintained two streams [when I was at any institution]: that I can volunteer, I can be involved in extracurriculars, I can have friends, and they would see something on TV and they would come to me and say “I saw you advocating racism on TV,” and I would make it very clear through body language that I didn’t want to talk about it, and then they wouldn’t talk about it. They would get uncomfortable, they would sort of back off and focus on the stuff we had in common, and that was true in community college too. I was running for office at that point. I was on the local news every day for the first year of my associate’s degree. I had classmates who noticed it, I had people in the halls who’d bring it up, but it was never something they wanted to confront, so they let it go. And I did kind of expect maybe New College would be like everything else I’d ever experienced, and that became really clearly untrue within the first couple of weeks of being there. I was very used to never bringing it up. I would never introduce myself and say, “I’m a white nationalist” because I thought there was all this other stuff that I had in common with people. So I made friends that first semester [at New College] and realized, bit by bit, that this was going to be an absolute catastrophe eventually.

Woodson: What was the underlying motivation that led to a student petition that Derek be expelled from New College?

Birmingham: I was not part of the petition. I believe that was a student-led initiative. My take on that is that there was a very vocal, in my opinion, minority of students who thought Derek should be expelled simply for what Derek believed. I think the majority of the student body had a perspective of more “This is something gross, I don’t want to think about this, I don’t want to talk about this.” I was one of the more vocal people on campus, critical of white nationalism, and I had a history of organizing against white nationalism and right-wing ideology in general. I grew up in South Florida, deeply involved in the extreme metal and hardcore scene, which has a long history of dealing with racist skinheads and other groups like that. Both myself and another New College alum had dummy accounts on Stormfront, where we would monitor stuff on Stormfront just to know what was going on. One of the reasons I was one of the louder voices on campus was because I had the safety of being a staff member (I worked in Student Affairs), so I felt comfortable being that loud. There were a lot of students who felt very, very unsafe with Derek being on campus. My biggest worry was less about the intellectual eyesore of Derek being on campus, but that Derek being ostracized or bullied would get out in public and someone who saw themselves as a loyal Stormfront soldier would come onto campus and do something. I was far more concerned about how prominent Derek was as the heir apparent of white nationalism in this country and what those folks in that movement were capable of doing to protect their would-be prince. On the forum, the dominant narrative was “We don’t really know what Derek thinks. If he’s here, there must be a reason. We can change his mind.” And then the other side of that was “I don’t think Derek belongs here.” And a silent majority just didn’t really want to weigh in on the issue.

Woodson: Allison, what was your initial response to understanding who Derek was?

Gornik: I think I was in that group that sort of just felt really, really uncomfortable. But I didn’t really feel unsafe, necessarily, given that I’m white and look white. My roommate, Matthew Stevenson, who was observantly Jewish, held weekly Shabbat dinners in our dorm room on Friday nights where anyone could sort of come and have dinner, and he started inviting Derek over. Matthew felt his best course of action was to invite Derek over for Shabbat dinners. I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t understand how white nationalism (which is deeply antisemitic) allowed Derek to come to Shabbat dinner and bring kosher wine and be very close friends with this Jewish student. I started talking to Derek a little bit, separately. I asked, “Can I ask you questions about this?” He said yes. I started doing so. I grew up in a very white place in northeast Ohio, certainly not around people who would call themselves white nationalists but who have sort of the—I think—underlying racist views that I think a lot of sort of isolated communities of white people have. I felt uncomfortable in that a lot of the things Derek was saying were similar to some of the things I had grown up hearing. So I felt like, “I don’t exactly know why you’re wrong, and I don’t like that I feel like I can’t argue against you.” To be fair, Derek had spent his whole life arguing white nationalism and I had not spent my whole life arguing against white nationalism. He was also very interpersonally respectful, and it felt like he was listening when I’d come back with whatever arguments or studies I had found. Over the course of the next year and a half, every fifth conversation or so was about white nationalism and his ideology. I think that, because it ended well—that Derek renounced white nationalism in 2013 and has been publicly against it since 2016—my role is kind of lifted up a little bit and put on a pedestal (that nice conversations did all the work, whereas community condemnation didn’t). And I think that isn’t the takeaway; I think roles in both of those were essential. Both the community outrage, combined with the individual interpersonal part of it, was really important.

Woodson: Derek, what was your response to the response? What did you see in terms of the student body responding to your presence?

Black: I felt horrible about the people I had become very close friends with the first semester but had never told them my background. It was something that was a betrayal to have not told them, and I watched all those relationships explode from abroad [while I was studying in Germany] when the forum started posting everything about it. And that is really important context for what I came back to. (When I got Germany to study abroad, David Duke—who was my godfather/uncle/dad’s best friend—met me at the airport, and took me on a national socialist tour of Munich where the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler rallies had happened. While I was going on my tour with him, I was checking my phone to see the New College forum thread blowing up, and I was trying to connect that stuff all at the same time). I didn’t doubt the correctness of white nationalism when I showed up at New College the next fall, but I cared that it was harming people I knew. At New College, I cared about a community in some tangible way. During those first conversations with Allison, my questions for her were “Where is the misunderstanding?” Because I view myself as being totally not involved in violence, my family condemns illegal activity on their website so, therefore, where is our responsibility? And this naivete (that feels disgusting to look back on), it was only coming back to New College when I really had to start facing it. I had always been able to tell myself that all this stuff about violence and aggression and danger from white nationalism, that’s not the community I know. I would tell my dad to not talk about [my presence at New College, etc.] because we cannot control the people in this movement.

Woodson: Members of our campus community are still navigating the aftermath of your presence on campus. It seems that the origin of the trauma is really centered around the administration’s reaction, or rather our lack of reaction, to the revelation of your ideological values and your prominence within the white nationalist movement. If you were to take that experience and then look ahead to some future moment, what would be a more appropriate New College response?

Black: The broadest answer is “more.” I look back on it and it was odd to me—but I think it must have been horrible to a lot of people on campus—the fact that there was no message, there was no communication, there was no support that I saw visibly for people for what to do or how to deal with it or where to go. I’m sure there were things I didn’t see. But, being a student and being a participant in the community, it just felt sort of deafening.

Birmingham: I think, first and foremost, what the administration really failed to do was actively communicate with the student body. It was kind of like this elephant in the room that everyone knew what was there but no one wanted to talk about.

Gornik: I echo what Derek and James said about “more.” I think, where people put money and resources and personnel and programming and creating spaces, speaks a lot to who they want to support. I think there was a lot of defense that went on about Derek’s right to be at the school, and it seems like there was a lot less defense of students who felt deeply uncomfortable on campus (who then had then their education disrupted, didn’t feel comfortable going to classes, stopped meeting in some of their extracurricular activities that they felt unsafe doing). That’s really awful for those students who had to go through that. As a student, I personally didn’t think much about what the administration was doing. In retrospect, being able to more actively support students and faculty probably would have gone a long way.

Woodson: How would you describe the allure of white nationalist ideology? And do you think it was inevitable, given the family you grew up in, that you had no choice but to embrace those ideals as a young adult?

Black: I know lots of white nationalist families and kids who grew up in white nationalism, and most of them didn’t become activists. Most of them believed it and didn’t contradict their families, but they didn’t believe it in a way that they were reading the books and they were trying to come up with strategy and they were running for office. That was me. And that’s a responsibility that I have that I try to wrestle with and deal with.

Woodson: Do you see any evidence that sharing your story is making an impact on people whose views about white supremacy you once shared?

Black: I speak generally to majority white audiences usually (that’s partly because of where I’m invited). And I think there’s a fundamental aspect of white supremacy that we should understand. A real basic way to understand it is as bodies in rooms. I have been invited to events that preached antiracism for the entire day and the audience was made up—almost entirely—of fairly wealthy white people who had segregated themselves to that event. I’ve been to colleges that were majority white that told me about their antiracism programs. I’ve been to so many spaces where so many people were talking about liberalism, their social justice, their antiracism and their involvement with Black Lives Matter, and the room was white. They can preach about being opposed to white supremacy, but a fundamental aspect of how a white nationalist defines white supremacy is bodies in a room. And whether they are liberal or conservative or whatever their ideology is, it’s the room that’s majority white and is controlled by white people. A white nationalist considers that successful white supremacist activism, and that’s something that none of those rooms have ever fully thought about—about what they’re doing. So speaking—in that way, I think—is necessary. I don’t think any of us do enough of that. I think that is real activism.

A final word from O’Shea: This conversation reminds me of how challenging and painful learning can be. For myself, as a white male who grew up in Canada, to Irish immigrant parents before coming to the United States for college, I didn’t have the depth of appreciation, and that’s not an excuse (this was even after being a part of American higher education for more than 30 years). Regarding the current and present danger of white nationalism in this country, I didn’t get it. And I didn’t understand the dark shadow that racism and racial violence casts over the lives of many members of our community. As I’m hearing the conversation and thinking about it, that lack of awareness and lack of sensitivity to these realities blunted my response. It didn’t just blunt my response, but also New College’s institutional response to the presence of a white nationalist on our campus, in a way that I’ve come to deeply regret. I, as much as anyone, celebrate the personal growth and transformation that happened for Derek during his time as a member of our community, thanks to the efforts of Allison, Matt Stevenson, James and others. At the same time, I regret not having been a more effective support and advocate for New College community members who were deeply troubled—understandably so—by his presence, and even to the point of fearing for their wellbeing. I really believe it’s the duty and responsibility of educational institutions to promote clarity about our history and the way that history continues to live in our midst. It’s a lesson that our institution has grown from and will be the better for.

“New Topics New College 2020-2021” series is a collaboration of New College and the New College Foundation. To mark New College’s 60th anniversary, this year’s series features noteworthy alumni whose New College experience prepared them for careers of exceptional impact.

The series runs from October through March, and tickets are $10. Reservations can be made here or by calling the New College events hotline at 941-487-4888. Tickets are free for New College students, faculty, staff and alumni. Reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance.

For more information on this and other “New Topics New College” events, visit ncf.edu/alumni-and-friends/the-foundation/ntnc-tickets/