All of us in the nation, indeed on the planet, witnessed the largely white mobs storming the U.S. capitol building last week.
This shameful episode, what many have termed an attempted coup, is yet another reminder in a long stream of reminders in recent history, for those with short memories, of the prevalent, indeed dominant, strain of white supremacy animating American culture.
While white supremacy informs American culture in thoroughgoing and often unacknowledged and less visible ways, the “domestic terrorists” taking over the capitol were its most overt manifestation, waving the three flags that most brazenly and proudly celebrate white supremacy: the confederate flag, the Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on me”), and the Trump flag.
Observing this vociferous expression of this cruel and painful dimension of the nation’s culture, part of the nation since and even prior to its inception, I started to reflect, through the combination of sadness, anger, and fear I was experiencing, on whether or not there was any hope of overcoming this mentality, this deeply ingrained structure of feeling in this culture. I don’t mean just fostering a politics, organizing and supporting movements for civil rights, and passing legislation that counters, contains, and seeks to keep at bay U.S. racism, but motivating a more substantial and truly transformative change of hearts and minds in those subscribing to this value system that is not just damaging to others but to themselves.
Argument and persuasion through reason and logic generally prove ineffective. Racist ideology is beyond reason, working on an extra-rational level. Stories, however, work on many levels in animating and informing our cultural sensibilities, so I turned there.
One story that came to mind was the 1998 movie American History X, directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna. The story’s central character is Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), a young celebrity of a white supremacist who, under the auspices of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), founder and ringleader of white supremacist organization and network, serves as neighborhood leader in Venice Beach, California.
He rallies other youth with typical racist talking points about immigrants and people color invading and taking jobs and opportunities from the “real” (white) hardworking Americans. In one scene, Derek and his thugs ransack a local grocery that, Derek complains in provoking his gang, was once owned by a white man from the neighborhood they all knew and who hired them but is now owned by a Korean who hires immigrants for pennies. In another scene, Derek, a skilled, basketball player, challenges African Americans to a game of Blacks versus Whites for control of the courts, and he wins. His ability to “take back” the neighborhood attracts other white youth. He later murders one of the other team’s players and another African American when he catches them trying to steal his car from his driveway in the night, landing him in prison.
The film opens on the day Derek is to be released from prison, focusing on Derek’s brother Danny (Edward Furlong) in the office of the school principal, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), because he has written an essay on Mein Kampf, discussing Adolph Hitler as a civil rights hero. While the teacher (Elliot Gould) wants Danny expelled, seeing him and his brother as irredeemable, the African American Sweeney, familiar with both, knows that Danny’s behavior is linked to issues with his brother. Rather than expel him, he becomes Danny’s history teacher in a course he calls American History X, and Danny’s first assignment is to write an essay about how everything in Derek’s life led up to this moment in his.
He did not give up on Danny but tried to motivate him to process his life and experience to help him.
He had not given up on Derek, either, we later learn in a scene when Dr. Sweeney visits him in prison after he has been raped and brutalized by other white supremacists. In prison, through his interactions with an African American character Lamont (Guy Torry) with whom he works the laundry and through his recognition of the hypocrisies of the other white supremacists, Derek overcomes his white supremacy and upon release attempts to save his brother from its insidiousness.
Throughout the film, Danny is writing his essay and processing his family life, the murders Derek committed which he witnessed, and Derek’s history.
He remembers his dad, a firefighter who was killed by an African American drug dealer while on the job, spewing many of the racist talking points Derek would later echo. He traces the flawed and angry beliefs to Derek’s pain and anger and to his father’s desperate anger and anxiety. He sees its counterproductiveness.
The counterproductiveness of racism is reinforced the next day when Danny returns to school with his essay, only to be shot to the death in the bathroom by a young African American he had provoked the day before.
The film’s action underlines a question Dr. Sweeney asks Derek in prison, “Has anything you done made your life better?”
This question is a key one we need to keep posing in our culture, as it invites white people to recognize that racism does not in the end serve their self-interests or in any way make their lives better or happier.
Sweeney’s character is a model for recognizing that saving American culture and society from white supremacy means changing hearts and minds through the difficult task of empathy and understanding for that which is inimical to us. To save ourselves we must save our apparent enemies.
While we must, of course, say “no” to white supremacy, we can’t simply condemn it; we must understand it and, yes, even as distasteful and difficult as it might seem, seek empathetically to understand those who cling stubbornly and desperately, often even gleefully, to such beliefs.
It would be useful to approach white supremacy the same way Karl Marx famously approached religion, by understanding the deep wound it salves and the inhumane social conditions that inflict that wound. Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” White supremacy can be understood as in part the sigh of frustrated white people who otherwise feel powerless in this world. Simply saying “no” to white supremacy without also understanding and seeking to address the socio-economic and political structures that do disempower the majority of Americans will likely prove ineffective in achieving a true transformation.
A film like American History X may have limitations in addressing American racism in that portraying an overt and extreme white supremacist might make it difficult for white viewers to identify with Derek’s racism and to explore their own less overt racist cultural beliefs or attitudes, which, by the very fact of living and breathing in American culture, we all inevitably absorb. That’s possible. It may, however, move Americans to explore the underlying everyday racism at work in American culture and think in more complex ways about the damage white supremacy does to all, including the white supremacists.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.