Growing up, Derek Black had little doubt about what the future held when he became an adult. He was determined to carry on the work his parents—Chloe and Don (founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront)—had spent decades devoting their lives to, promoting the idea that the U.S. should be purged of all non-white races.
“I was pretty confident that white nationalist activism would be a big part of my life,” Black, 29, tells PEOPLE in an interview that appears in this week’s magazine. “I thought it was so important that I felt that I kind of had to.”
But then a handful of college friends helped Black open his eyes and ultimately renounce the group’s racist philosophy, a sanitized version of white supremacy. In 2013, he abandoned the white nationalist ideology in a letter posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website that made headlines and “devastated my parents,” recalls Black.
His decision—chronicled in the new book Rising Out of Hatred by Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow—was a stunning about face for Black, who had spent his entire life embracing the ideology.
At ten, while growing up in West Palm Beach, Fla., he started his own Stormfront offshoot for kids. By the time he turned 20, he had his own daily radio show on a local station where listeners could tune in and listen as he spouted the group’s racist philosophy.
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“What’s happening right now is a genocide of our people, plain and simple,” Derek told his radio audience. “We are Europeans. We have a right to exist. We will not be replaced in our own country.”
But life as Black knew it took a dramatic change shortly after he began studying German and medieval history at New College of Florida in 2010. He kept a low profile during his first semester, never discussing his beliefs and trying to fit in with the other ethnically-diverse students, but was eventually outed as being the poster boy for white nationalism. He immediately found himself shunned and harassed by nearly everyone on the famously liberal campus. It was painful, Black recalls, “but it felt like the incorrect choice to run away.”
And then came the invitation from Matthew Stevenson, the college’s only orthodox Jew, who held Shabbat dinners in his dorm room on Friday nights. Instead of ostracizing Black, Stevenson and some friends decided that maybe befriending the racist could help him rethink his beliefs—so they invited him to dinner.
“What I heard from Derek when we started talking,” recalls Stevenson’s roommate Allison Gornik, who initially wanted nothing to do with the white nationalist sitting in their kitchen, “was that his belief that the races needed to be separated was based on very well-articulated x, y and z reasons. And I thought, ‘Cool. I can work with that.'”
Aiming to dismantle the arguments Black used to rationalize white nationalism, Gornik immersed herself in numerous studies and statistics on race and immigration. Over the next two years, as their friendship blossomed into romance, she and Black—who had slowly begun distancing himself from Stormfront and his radio show—spent countless hours discussing the findings.
Black began to realize that the evidence he’d always used to support his racist views—involving supposed IQ differences between the races and immigrant crime rates—had been trumped up or misused by those in his movement.
For more on Derek and an excerpt from the book, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands now.
“We don’t have any evidence for race being biological, it’s purely cultural,” he says. “And advocating in favor of whites-only stuff is a real threat to everybody else. That’s what pushed me over to the point where I couldn’t advocate it anymore and I actually had to condemn it.”
The fallout was swift and continues to this day. Stormfront members quickly branded him a “traitor.” Relations with his parents and other family members remain “very tense,” he says.
His godfather, the well-known white nationalist David Duke, was especially outraged and dumbfounded by Derek’s decision to renounce the movement. “I think he finds it very obnoxious and unpleasant,” says Black. “He always thought I would carry on his legacy.”