Tom Olsen Holds Discussion on Overcoming Hatred

White supremacy continues to be an ongoing issue in America. While racism has always been a problem in American society, white supremacists in particular have flourished ever since Donald Trump has been elected. His racist and divisive rhetoric has emboldened these groups to act and operate in the open, most infamously with people like Richard Spencer and events such as the Unite the Right Rally, which resulted in the death of three people. 

However, there are rare incidents of white supremacists turning away from hateful rhetoric, and attempting to undo the damage they have done. One such individual, Derek Black, has since renounced his views and has made strides to mitigate the damage he caused, and has shared his account with Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist Eli Saslow. Derek grew up in a white supremacist household, is the son of Stormfront founder Don Black, and was the godson of David Duke, a former grand-wizard for the Ku Klux Klan. 

His account was recorded in the 2018 book “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.” Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz Tom Olsen discussed the themes of the book at the Inquiring Minds bookstore, through the The Benjamin Center’s One Book One New Paltz Program. This program hosts regular book discussions across the community over a year. 

Olsen guided the discussion through the event by throwing out questions or observations to the audience and having it grow from there. Questions regarding Derek’s gradual and meaningful change, the nature of white supremacist cells and how to handle hate groups were brought up during the discussion, with audience members providing their own opinions on the matter. 

In addition, Olsen placed a special emphasis on Derek’s college education, which was instrumental in the changing of his views. 

“It’s a story about how college actually matters. I think there’s almost no chance that Derek Black changes his mind if he doesn’t go to college,” Olsen said. “It’s only when he comes up against people who have strongly held views that are not his, then that beautiful process of exchanging ideas starts to happen, and he starts to see the fallacy of his own upbringing.”

There is a political argument that the United States is a post-racial society, meaning that the United States has moved beyond racial discrimination, prejudice and oppression. 

This phrase cropped up in recent memory, with politcal commentators hailing the election of 44th President Barack Obama as a moment when the United States became post-racial. Lou Dobbs, an anchor on Fox News, claimed that “We are now in a 21st-century post-partisan, post-racial society.” Chris Matthews, a host on MSNBC, said that President Obama “is post-racial by all appearances.”

However, accounts like Derek Black’s point to the opposite. Based on the FBI’s hate crime statistics, the occurrences of these racial incidents has risen from 5,818 single-bias incidents to 7,106 compared to 2015 and 2017.  

Because of this, Olsen believes that these accounts need to be shared in community discussions. 

“I think one of the reasons to study a book like this is that it speaks to our time,” Olsen said. “I think that racial hatred and bias is a really dangerous thing for a society. I think the vast majority of people don’t want to live in a society that works on that principle. But there’s a very vocal and increasingly visible minority to keep beating that drum.”