Sociological Theories in the Movie American History X
American History X - a sociological and psychological perspective
“I hate anyone that isn’t white Protestant,” begins Danny Vinyard, his words permeating into the humid Venice Beach air, drawing explicit amens from his overweight Nazi friend whose mitt of a hand captures his speech with a video recorder. “They’re a burden to the advancement of the white race.” Such encapsulates the 1998 film, American History X, a controversial and brutal story of racism in a family and the enduring seeds that hate can sow. Filled with countless examples of concepts of social psychology, this film encompasses so broad a view of the gripping talons of American racism, that its tale of conversion will certainly serve as a vision of hope in the present time.
Venice Beach, burgeoning with increasingly diverse cultures and simmering in the summer heat, proves a fertile ground for the formation of groups of angry, frustrated, insecure, ethnocentric white males. The changing face of the community has many of them nervous about their place in society. Anger over the sheer number of illegal immigrants in the city and the government’s apparent lackadaisical policies which pander to their human needs further supply fuel for their white rage. “Don’t just be some punk, be part of something” incites the charismatic white supremacist Derrick Vinyard. This invitation proves quite attractive for the gathered crowd, who soon find comfort and meaning in their new social identity. This identity enables them to focus their ethnocentric energies into a cohesive unit of organized rage and aggression. Their united goal of the preservation and advancement of the white race is cloaked under the guise of saving American society from the social diseases that threaten its existence.
In a strong showing of social dominance orientation, the young white supremacists feel obligated to subvert other social groups who they deem inferior and dangerous to the survival of the white race as the dominant recipient of the fruits of the American dream. This stems from their confidence that their ‘white Protestant’ upbringing is the backbone of the country’s morale and is superior to that of the “thousands of parasites that stream across the border” or the African-Americans who “have a racial commitment to crime.” This example of social dominance theory exhibits at its very core extreme ideals of ethnocentricity.
In viewing the assembly of this human hate machine, it is natural to wonder how this manner of thinking, which seems obviously disordered in its nature, could seem plausible to so many. It is necessary to examine who delivered the message, how it was made appealing, and how the audience was targeted. As previously mentioned, the mouthpiece of the white-supremacist Nazi movement in Venice Beach is Derrick Vinyard, an intelligent, vibrant leader who is able to identify and verbalize the feelings of his frustrated comrades. He had the ability to harness the anger of his clan, transforming them from an undisciplined, rag-tag gang into an organized force of evil. Vinyard mixes a powerful potion of reason and emotion, delivered in such a way that he is quick to gain followers. He is one of them, but so much more. His reputation reaches mythical proportions of influence after he is jailed for the ‘curbstomping’ death of an African-American male that was robbing his car. As in other cases of gang-related hate organizations, his time of incarceration actually extends the reach and influence he has over his Nazi community, who venerate his actions of brutality. This also factors in the indoctrination that is fed to the followers. Quite simple in its content; we are white, so we are better, and thus, deserve better. The age and mental state of his audience is exploited for the advancement of his, and soon to be their, cause. Young, frustrated, bitter, and angry, the group needs an outlet for their hostility. Vinyard is quick and efficient in defining what the target of their aggression will be. Later, after his conversion in prison, Vinyard recognizes the manipulative and destructive beast that this indoctrination of hate is, and criticizes his former Nazi boss, Cameron, for utilizing these same methods to first recruit him. “You prey on people, Cam…you got a whole crop already lined up.”
Although group dynamics play a large role in this film, it is also equally necessary and even more intriguing to examine the interior of Derrick Vinyard and the transformation that he endured. The changing of one’s self-concept can be subtle yet tremendously painful. Derrick Vinyard’s schema was redefined amidst hundreds of pairs of mens’ prison underwear, spurred on by a laundry partner whose color was polar opposite of the stark ‘tighty whites’ which surrounded them in lumpy mounds. Thrust into a world where he was now the minority, Derrick fell victim to the angry stares and snarling comments of fellow prisoners and wardens, who surely fed upon his blatantly racist tattoos for motivation. Derrick soon found himself welcomed into the white-supremacist clique within the prison walls who would afford him protection by numbers. This group, in fact, would eventually give reason for him to renounce his former way of life. The hypocrisy of certain members of the Nazi group, coupled with the jovial, honest, and trustworthy attitude of his African-American chore partner, gradually reformed his manner of thinking and categorizing human worth. In a prime form of cognitive dissonance theory, Derrick is torn between two worlds, unsure of which to trust, believe, and live by. He feels guilty for even considering abandoning his previously treasured ideals, but recognizes the need to examine their faults, which is a marked improvement in itself. His ties to his Nazi prison family are ferociously severed when he is viciously gang-raped by them for freely associating with African-Americans. Now a victim of a hate crime at the hands of his own, Derrick’s side of association is firmly cemented. With hair progressing from stubbly to bristly, to soft, and finally, long enough to part, Vinyard’s exterior transformation is increasingly apparent and matches the interior change that has reshaped his consciousness and his very existence.
To what extent would this shift color his relationship with his impressionable younger brother, Danny? The two of them, naturally, had been a part of the same dinner-table discussions that passed on many father-to-son viewpoints, some of which smacked of sugarcoated racism. With normative influence in action, the Vinyard boys were quick to adopt their father’s view, whose “good boy” words of affirmation were reward enough. Later, the actions of his white-supremacist older sibling proved to affect teenaged Danny considerably, who clutched to his brother’s ideals when he couldn’t physically reach him through prison walls. In a statement of pride, Danny claimed, “people look at me and see my brother.” In the same manner, however, after seeing the profound change that prison stamped upon Derrick, Danny was also forced to reconcile with his faulty formation of social thinking and reconstruct his self-concept accordingly.
”It's wrong and it was eating me up, it was going to kill me. And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this shit? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did ever took that feeling away. I killed two guys, Danny, I killed them. And it didn't make me feel any different. It just got me more lost and I'm tired of being pissed off, Danny. I'm just tired of it.”
Danny exhales, seemingly exhausted after hearing of the brutal ordeals that his brother was forced to endure while imprisoned for a malicious action that Danny deified. Despite the tension that divided the Vinyard brothers in the previous scene of the film, the chasm between them has been forged by the harsh, yet vulnerable honesty with which Derrick shared his conversion story with his brother. Seeing the foundation that he has based his hate-filled existence upon so shaken and literally remolded, Danny abandons his racially terrorist views. In the most powerful moment of the film, Derrick and Danny are confronted by the walls of their room. Walls which served to erode the innocent tolerance of their childhood, plastered with Nazi regalia, swastikas, propaganda, and white-power rhetoric. Although these walls once served as the stronghold of their movement and the birthplace of their racism, the pistons that jumpstarted their engines of aggression and rage each morning and night stand silent, motionless, now powerless. As though they are clothes that used to define our style, yet no longer feel right when we see them in front of the mirror. Silently approaching the posters and flags, with great solemnity the brothers remove each billboard of hate, picking off each scab of a lecherous disease that has held them hostage for so long. After all has been torn down, the now bare 1970’s wood paneling wall of their room seems to scream in its nakedness, ‘who am I?’ Surely reechoing within the walls of each Vinyard’s soul is the same question as they are forced to rebuild the walls of their self-concepts without the nails and screws of racism. Having completed this arduous and monumental task of redefinition, Derrick yearns to further scrub away the layers of filth that have slowly suffocated him for years, “I’m gonna take a shower, alright?” Despite all his scrubbing, the bold swastika tattoo emblazoned on his chest remains, an indelible mark of his past staining the pores of his identity. Gazing in the mirror, he covers the stain with his hand, and looks on, a new man.
American History X dramatically portrays that stronghold that hate can have on society, on groups, on families, and on individuals. Although pockets of racism exist and are passed down through generations, the film proves through its examination of social psychological elements that we do not have to fall prey to our surroundings and cater to the whims and desires of the social beings around us. It is possible to break the mold of our ancestors and create a new legacy. “We are not enemies, but friends…”