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American History X Movie And Racism

Updated on January 23, 2012

Deviance or violations of social norms has many forms of manifesting itself. Everyday life presents all members of society with numerous opportunities to exhibit deviant behaviour; however, few choose to act upon these opportunities. Most individuals within society possess strong desires to conform and abide by social norms, culture, and expectations. Needless to say, the process of conforming is dependent upon the appropriate behaviours, and norms as decided by the culture and society that each of us belong to. This concept is known as cultural relativity and I believe it is the foundation from which conflict and disagreement arise. In our society there are many subcultures or worlds within the larger world of the dominate culture - one of which is racism. American History X is a movie about two brothers who grow up in a society of racism, and prejudice. Their lives, fueled by beliefs of white supremacy, and anger for the unexpected death of their father, illustrate the power society has upon shaping the behaviours of its members. This papers attempts to analyse the movie American History X and determine the source of the deviant behaviour exhibited by Derek and Dennis Vineyard.

Sociologists use the term deviance to define any type of behavior that violates social norms. The sociological perspective on deviance primarily focuses around the concept that culture influences behavior, and behaviors (including deviant behavior) define societal norms. Sociologist’s emphasis that deviant behavior cannot be gauged based upon what is right or wrong, instead it must be gauged by societal responses to negative behavior. This is necessary because acts that are deemed unacceptable by one culture may be acceptable in another. This principle also applies to prejudice, and racism which are the primary deviant behaviors exhibited by the two brothers, Derek and Danny in movie American History X. In the case of Derek and Danny, the source of their deviance is not found biologically or psychologically, rather it is a combination of their subjective interpretation of society, and of the associations they have with family and friends.

Derek and Danny are raised in a middle class family that includes two sisters, a caring mother, and their proud father - Dennis. Derek is the oldest of the three siblings, and Danny - the youngest. Dennis is portrayed as being disgruntled with the current state of society, specifically as it pertains to race relations and affirmative action. Naturally, his views of prejudice are passed along to his son’s. This plays a large role in shaping the cultural and societal views of Derek, and Dennis. An example of Dennis’ influence can be found in a scene of the movie that takes place while the family is having breakfast at the dining room table. Derek is discussing an intriguing new assignment given by his new African American English teacher, Bob Sweeny, in which they are instructed to read a book written by an African American author. The idea of this assignment is upsetting to Dennis as is displayed by him stating “affirmative blaction” is causing the schools to get rid of “great books” in exchange for “black books”. Prior to this conversation, it appears Derek holds equal opinions of whites and blacks, however, at this very moment, as his father spews words of hate implying the blacks and minorities are taking over, and that affirmative action is violating their rights – Derek agrees and begins to see the world though his fathers eyes. Later, their father’s unexpected death, the result of an African American gunman, increased Derek’s hatred of African Americans.

After Dennis is killed, Derek becomes an active member of a white-supremacist group. Derek is portrayed as an intelligent, eloquent, and motivating individual. However, lurking beneath this persona of stability, and even temperament, is a brutally vicious individual who at one point in the movie voluntarily manslaughters two young African American thieves who were attempting to steal his car from the driveway of his home. In a sense, I believe Derek’s behavior can be attributed to his frustration of the perceived lack of control over his environment – in this case the death of his father, advancement of minorities, and unequal rights (between whites and minorities) – which echoes the cultural views instilled into Derek by his father. It is difficult to say, but I believe in Derek’s mind, this frustration produced strain which caused him to deviate and utilize non-conforming paths to obtain change within his society. This concept is known as “strain theory” and it states when members of society do not have adequate socially acceptable means to obtain their cultural goals, they will utilize other (less desirable) paths to achieve them. In this case, Derek and his white-supremacist gang chose to utilize a type of deviant behavior known as rebellion. Rebellion is the process of rejecting cultural goals and the conforming means of achieving them. Derek’s goal in life was to return control of society back to the white members. This is evident in a scene of the movie where Derek leads members of his white-supremacist group on a riot in which they plunder and destroy a local grocery store, which apparently, was once owned by a local white member of their community, but had recently been purchased by a Korean family.At this point in the movie Derek is active in his white-supremacy tendencies, however, that soon changed.

Derek viewed himself as a victim of society, holding minorities responsible for the problems in the world. His beliefs are ethnocentric, persistently utilizing his own group’s way of doing things as a yardstick for judging how others should live. However, while incarcerated for the killing of the two African Americans, Derek’s views of society, specifically of white-supremacy and of African Americans changed. The source of this change is rooted in a fundamental shift in the way Derek viewed himself. This shift in perception came at the expense of Derek being brutally gang-raped in prison by a group of white-supremacist members. From that moment forward, Derek’s symbolic association of white supremacy was destroyed, his sense of self was shattered, and his identify became lost. This confrontation served as a new beginning for Derek. Symbolically speaking, Derek’s new beginning involves coming to terms with the death of his father, readjusting his beliefs of African Americans, and understanding the negativity associated with his racist tendencies. It also serves the purpose giving Derek the opportunity to discourage his younger brother Dennis from going down the same path of racism, hate, and prejudice.

Ultimately, Derek’s deeply rooted views of racism changed; partly the result of his experiences with African Americans while in prison and also by his relationship with his former English teacher, Bob Sweeny.Derek’s self perception changed after he came to understand that up to this point in life, nothing that he had accomplished made much of a difference to his life, or to the world around him. He now understands the errors in his logic of white-supremacy, racism, hate, and prejudice. He also understands how his actions adversely affected his younger brother, Danny.

At the end of the movie, Danny is shot and killed in the bathroom at school by a young African American classmate. His death comes on the heels of him and Derek vowing to change their lives by turning away from racism, and hatred.

It is interesting to think of society as object that can be responsible for building walls of racism, hate, and prejudice around its members. However, it is clear to me that Derek and Dennis lived in such a world. To uncover the source of their deviant behavior, we only need to look into their society and we will see how their father planted the seeds of racism, and his unfortunate death allowed it to take root. In the end, their associations allowed their views of racism to flourish and grow until it reached its climax. And I believe it is at this point, at this climax where society offers one final chance to conform, and in Derek’s case, one final opportunity to tear down the walls of racism, and plant new seeds of the one human emotion that he does not yet perceive: understanding.

Click here to read more reviews of American History X.


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      6 years ago

      Americas future. The white community is finally going to pull the trigger on bringing pigmentation into the white community. They are going to take a small percentage of white bosses and assistant bosses and disguise them as black men and they will use their blackness to get more productivity out of black employees. Black crime will be going down as well. Law enforcement will use oreo cops to talk some sense into black criminals. White men will also go undercover as black men to help get black votes and to protect white people from racial politics.

      All the white community needs is a black voice and by bringing pigmentation into the white community it will open up that door.


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