On a sunny day in February, Derek Black arrives at a chain restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida, looking like he's just stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. Beneath a broad-brimmed black leather hat, he's gaunt and pale with shoulder-length red hair, knoblike cheekbones, and pond-water-colored eyes. After an awkward greeting—I explain that I have the flu, so we don't shake hands—Black, 20, sits down and in a folksy drawl begins discussing the eventful childhood he's barely out of. There's the HBO documentary, Hate.com, that he appeared in when he was 12; the USA Today article the next year that cast him as half–Huck Finn, half-Damien ("he carries around an encyclopedic knowledge of frogs, snakes, fish, and the Web. . . . Yet the thing that makes his father proudest is that Derek runs a Web site for kids—promoting white supremacy and racial hate"); the bomb threats made against his home. Now Black's in the news again, because he's been denied the seat he won last August on the Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee.
In racist circles the election imbroglio was a hot topic: David Duke flew to Florida and lent his support and, later, at a conference of white nationalists in Memphis, enthusiastically endorsed Black as the face of the next generation of race hate in America. "We're so privileged to be in your presence here, Derek," he gushed, and predicted that Black would have "a much more extensive national and international career than I've had."
Black removes his hat, which looks like the sort of gear one might wear on horseback while herding minorities out of the country. He describes growing up in a predominantly Hispanic and Jewish neighborhood a few miles away. "Most people don't live in nearly as racially diverse a place as I do," he says. "I think it gives me some legitimacy when I speak about our multiracial society." He comes from celebrated white-supremacist stock: His father is an ex-member of the White Youth Alliance and a former national Grand Wizard of the KKK who worked on David Duke's campaigns in Louisiana and who today—with his son—runs the leading white-nationalist website, Stormfront.org; his mother is Duke's ex-wife. From the age of 10, Black would accompany his father to meetings.
Black's speech patterns are strangely similar to Jimmy Stewart's: grandfatherly, emphatic, and singsong. He was homeschooled and still lives with his mother and father. He reads fantasy novels like Twilight and is semi-obsessed with Taylor Swift. ("She is the greatest country musician on the radio today," he says.) He's more comfortable talking about ideology than pop culture, though, especially as it relates to recent political changes. "He's a big marker," Black says of the new president. "I don't expect in four years to be living in a wasteland of burning tires and homeless people, but for me Obama is one step away."
The Southern Poverty Law Center says that Obama's rise to power energized racial extremists (it estimates that the number of active hate groups nationwide rose from 888 in 2007 to 926 the following year). One of the engines driving this surge is Stormfront, which Mark Potok, the director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, calls "without question the most important white-nationalist website in the world." The site has added around 80 members a day over the past two years and now claims to have more than 160,000. "One hundred and twenty thousand people used Stormfront in the first 24 hours after Obama was elected," Black says. "The site crashed."
Last August, Black defeated his opponent for the county committee seat—a middle-aged, Cuban-American community activist—by a vote of 167 to 121. His campaign materials made no mention of his family history or his affiliation with Stormfront. The committee chairman learned of Black's background after the election, then refused to seat him, justifying the decision on the grounds that Black hadn't signed a loyalty oath pledging to avoid conduct that might harm the party's reputation. "The biggest support I got during that time was from older Cuban men," Black says. They evidently weren't aware of his position on immigration—he wants to ban it, except for Europeans. Does Black think he would have won if he'd been open about his background? "There are all kinds of statements I could have made that wouldn't have been beneficial," he says. Even if the party is refusing to seat him, Derek Black already talks like a politician.
The night after our first meeting, the chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of Palm Beach County calls to order the hundred or so Republicans who have assembled in the auditorium of a West Palm Beach municipal building. In the back of the room, wearing his black hat, Derek Black sits quietly with a group of supporters. At the December meeting, outraged by the committee's refusal to seat him, he'd spoken out of order; he was shouted down and, he says, "stormed out" of the room. This will be his first appearance before the committee since then. After some agenda items are covered—henceforth Lobster Fest will be Rib Fest, let's start using the Internet rather than direct mail—the floor is opened to two-minute speeches. Eventually Black, his head bowed, approaches the microphone.
As Black removes his hat and rests it on the podium, the room goes quiet. "It's good to be back," he says, blushing, and begins reading from prepared remarks. Black's prospects for claiming his seat appear to be dead—he has no base of support in the party, and thus far no legal representation—but he's attempting to revive them by presenting himself as a reasonable, articulate, staunchly conservative, and above all wholesome candidate. He seems about as threatening as a Model UN debater.
"Thirty years ago," Mark Potok says, "the people on the radical right really were white supremacists." Today, he says, they're white separatists instead—or, euphemistically, white nationalists. "Someone like Derek Black will make white nationalism sound like it's a benign version of white supremacy," he says. "But what it really says is 'There is absolutely nothing in this country worth saving. We've got to tear it down and start over.'"
Don Black, Derek's father, has tried to put this idea into practice: In the early eighties, he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for conspiring to overthrow the black-majority government of Dominica, a Caribbean island, and replace it with a white-supremacist one; he was arrested as he and his co-conspirators prepared to board a boat loaded with guns and dynamite. Asked about his father's history, Derek Black says sharply, "My family and friends . . . have always been very mild American men who wanted to see change in their country." Don Black founded Stormfront in 1995, after learning HTML in prison. Today, his son produces Stormfront's Internet-radio broadcasts, including a regular program featuring David Duke. Derek is also a frequent contributor to the site, with more than 4,000 posts to his name.
"I don't know of anybody who's got better gifts for his age than Derek does," Duke says by telephone from somewhere in Ukraine (he won't be specific), where he's lecturing. "By the time I was 19 I was pretty much on fire politically, and he does remind me of how I was at that age. He's way ahead of me, I think, in his political maturity. He's got views more like I have now than what I had then. I don't really know of any areas that we're in fundamental disagreement."
"I speak about what affects people directly, not the lofty ideals of a liberal society that we have from Lyndon Johnson on down," Black says. "I'm talking about the real economic impact of a welfare society, of Third World labor coming into this country, of our foreign excursions, of our immigration policy. I am not a white supremacist. I am a white person who's concerned about discrimination against white people. But anyone who speaks on behalf of white folks is considered racist and a white supremacist. And there's no excuse for that in a country in which whites will be a minority by 2042."
"These people are essentially neo-Nazis," Potok says. "They're trying to make themselves look more acceptable to the mainstream, but their ideas haven't changed."
"I am not a menacing person," Black says. His next strategy will be to ask the local Republican party to confirm his election by secret ballot at its May meeting. Should he fail to be reinstated, he's not certain he'll run for office again, although he will stay involved in right-wing politics. "I see these people on the Hill and they're totally disconnected from real issues," he says. After the committee meeting, we finish speaking and Black extends his hand. I beg off again, mentioning my flu. "Still?" he says accusingly. He turns away, looking wounded—a kid who, despite his hateful views, wants to be liked.