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Former White Nationalist On RNC's Racial Rhetoric

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, it's become clear that the party conventions are as much television shows as anything, so the images and language each party chooses to describe itself is more important than ever. And while both parties describe the upcoming election as something of a battle for the country's soul, the language the GOP used stood out to many of us, with speakers describing the ongoing protests in dire terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PATRICIA MCCLOSKEY: They're not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether.

ERIC TRUMP: They want to destroy the monuments of our forefathers. They want to disrespect our national anthem by taking a knee.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens.

MARTIN: Now, this language isn't new - the idea that they are dangerous, and they want to take over. But is there something else going on here? We reached out to Derek Black for his perspective. He was raised in a prominent white nationalist family. His father, Don Black, created Stormfront, the Internet's first and largest white nationalist site. And his godfather was former KKK grand wizard David Duke.

Derek Black was groomed to take a leadership role in the movement, and he played a key role in shaping the movement's modern language. He has since renounced those beliefs, so we've called him to ask him to share his thoughts about the language that we heard.

Derek Black, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEREK BLACK: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I just want to ask what stood out for you. And the reason I ask is that when you were still involved with the white nationalist movement, you are credited with changing some of the language that they used. I mean, you didn't use, like, overt racial slurs and ethnic slurs. You kind of reframed the language in a way that doesn't seem to be overtly race-based. So I wanted to ask if there was something you heard that struck you from that period of time in your life.

BLACK: My family by the time I was born had spent decades running for office and trying to appeal to broad bases of white people in America that they thought would be receptive to their message. And this convention was unusual, actually, in how explicit it was in making that same appeal.

MARTIN: What were some of the speeches that stood out for you for that kind of language? Because nobody ever said that. Nobody ever said, we're only talking about white people here. In fact, quite the opposite.

BLACK: And that is exactly part of how these appeals work. Looking at the McCloskey speech itself was constantly coded. And I definitely observed that the word white never appears in any of these speeches. I can think of my godfather David Duke winning his campaign for Louisiana Legislature in the late 1980s. He never talked about racial epithets. He never attacked groups. It was always the language of the real victims are the silent majority.

The real victims are people like you and me against the forces of political correctness, against the forces of discrimination. The real discrimination is against people who look like us - and never going so far as to say, white people are the victims because you always have to avoid being called racist.

I think you see echoes of that in the McCloskeys talking about the Democrats wanting to totally abolish the suburbs. The message is very clear - that there are people who look like them who live in the suburbs, and there are people who look different from them who are marching in these protests who are, in their telling, threatening them. That is the essential message of white fear and white power that I've just never seen so explicitly coded.

MARTIN: What would you say to people who are listening to our conversation now who would just say that, you know, we're being ridiculous or that we're just reading too much into it? Those are just descriptors.

BLACK: I would say that I have seen this from the inside. In 2008, I ran a campaign in South Florida for a very small local Republican county committee seat. And I was coming from a white nationalist family, but nobody knew that at the time. I went door to door. I campaigned on the platform of no immigration, that violent crime is perpetrated by people who look different from you and me - these people I was talking to while I campaigned. And I won more than 60% of the vote in this very small election.

That demonstrates something much larger - that we have been faced with coded messages for years because there is a real stigma around the word racist and the word racism, and nobody wants to be tarred with that. What we need to look at is, what voters are people going after? What policies are they advocating? Are they trying to challenge racist ideas and racist outcomes? Are they trying to challenge and to reverse the gap in income and wealth between white people and people of color? Are they trying to make this a more equal country?

Or are they talking about how none of those problems exist? If they are not, then I don't think it's a really unfair conclusion to say that you are advocating to maintain those policies and to maintain that unfairness.

MARTIN: Derek Black was considered the heir to the white nationalist movement. He is now a graduate student in history and an anti-racist activist. You can read a powerful story about him in a book by Eli Saslow called "Rising Out Of Hatred: The Awakening Of A Former White Nationalist."

Derek Black, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BLACK: Thanks so much for having me on today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.