Colorblind Racism and American History X

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The film American History X provides an obvious commentary on the tragedy caused by racism in America. The characters are shockingly race-conscious and extreme in their behavior. They do not display what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva would call colorblind racism; instead, the racism of these characters is so out in the open, it provides the core of their identity for most of the movie. However, Bonilla-Silva’s four frames of colorblindness can still be applied to film. The ubiquity of colorblindness exists not on part of the characters in film, but rather in the audience of the movie American History X as we struggle in understanding racism in modern America.

Common words one might use to describe the racism presented in this film include “horrible, “unbelievable, “disgusting,” and “brutal,” which is apt, but we have to wonder how genuine these responses are. Could they merely be a result of not wanting to seem racist by pointing to positive attributes to about the film? When the audience of this film experiences this movie, they try so hard to view it from a colorblind perspective; the irony lies in the fact that they are actually still seeing it in black in white, whether they realize it or not, and only the truly attentive audience member would notice that some scenes are strategically in black and white, therefore appropriately creating a gray area that questions whether or not colorblindness is a positive or negative way of imagining race.

There are four frames of colorblindness outlined by Bonilla-Silva that can be applied and evaluated by viewing the film American History X and an assessment of his framework as it applies to modern society. The first frame, abstract liberalism, can be assessed by reactions of viewers of the film who are uneasy by the harsh portrayal of racism and wish to in no way be viewed themselves as racist. More specifically, Bonilla-Silva’s term abstract liberalism is broken down to define the notion of liberalism itself, which, in the United States is often simply regarded as socially progressive. In Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Bonilla-Silva takes the time to remind us where the term originated. He writes, “liberalism, or ‘liberal humanism’, is at the core of modernity; of the philosophical, economic, cultural, and political challenge to the feudal order,” as outlined by the political philosopher John Gray (qtd. Bonilla-Silva 26). The preceding word, “abstract,” suggests that there is a certain level of idealism within liberalism that remains aloof from the actually of circumstances. While viewers of American History X may think they are viewing the film as non-racist liberals, they are inevitably among typical contemporary, progressive Americans who are part of the racial paradox in which non-racist racists do actually exist. Viewers of the film American History X may wholeheartedly believe they are not racist, but growing up in modern day America, we are yet to reach a social and cultural climate where that can exist. Race is still a huge factor whether we want it to be or not, and idealizing or abstracting the notion of race does not annihilate its presence, it simply seeks to avoid it.

The second frame of naturalization is used to “reinforce the myth of nonracialism” (Bonilla-Silva 28). The attitude that permeates from this theme is a more passive notion of “that’s just the way it is” (Bonilla-Silva 37). Naturalization is comparable to the existential idea of designating “the other” as a natural process in identity formation used by philosophers. The belief by both whites and non-whites that we seek to segregate ourselves is a way to let those who do not want to be viewed as racist, but somehow realists, believe that they are simply accepting the facts of nature that people of different racial backgrounds will be inherently different and therefore separate themselves accordingly. This frame is particularly unfortunate since it is adopted by whites and minorities alike, and therefore more prevalent. The “us versus them” mentality is an obvious source of violence and stereotyping that is rampant throughout American History X. From the basketball game of blacks versus whites to determine jurisdiction over a part of town to the segregation that Derek Vineyard falls victim to while in prison are all examples of naturalization that are, in reality, anything but natural.

American History X seems to be a general commentary of the fight between whites and blacks and the tragedy caused by extreme racism. But as we see, particularly with Derek’s incarceration, there are gray areas when it comes to race. The strength in numbers survival technique is clearly practiced by both sides as Derek gravitates towards and then becomes disillusioned by the whites that end up raping him for his lack of allegiance to their crew. Once Derek begins to see through the falsity that racism has instilled in his entire outlook, he becomes open to a friendship with his black co-worker in the laundry, who it is revealed ends up putting himself on the line to protect Derek, who, as a white, is a minority in prison and left susceptible by betraying his loyalty to the group of whites he initially befriends.

Culturally-based racism, the third frame in Bonilla-Silva’s colorblind racism framework, is less obvious in American History X, but nonetheless relevant. The culture we are most exposed to in the film is that of the white supremacist, a subculture within white society that idolizes Adolf Hitler and adopts a brain-washed, pigeon holed perspective in which minorities become the scapegoat and their purpose is to intimidate and eradicate them from their once all-white neighborhood. Additionally, the culture-based racism frame is exemplified in the film by the poverty level of minorities, perhaps most memorably in the raid of the Korean-owned grocery and its Mexican employees. Early on in in the film, part of the voice-over commentary by Danny, Derek’s bother, suggests that economic decline (which pre-imprisoned Derek claims is due to “border jumpers”) is the reason that their home of Venice Beach is now a multicultural community, however Danny does not have the vocabulary to label it as such, being the protégé of Derek, the leader of the white supremacists before he goes to prison. It is no mistake that by the end of the film, it is Derek’s family, Protestants once veiled in white privilege, who are living in a low-income apartment building compared to the upscale home they had at the beginning of the film. This symbolically represents the misunderstanding by Derek’s old gang that called themselves D.O.C., in which minorities were poor, lazy, and working the system of affirmative action and welfare to receive low-income public housing and entitlements, the latter of which the Vinyards certainly seem to be eligible for at this point.

The final frame of colorblindness, minimization of racism, is the attempt to underplay the existence of racism by comparing it to the past or grasping for some glimmer of hope that racism has diminished. As Bonita-Silva writes of this second frame, “ it allows whites to accept facts like the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, the brutal police attack on Rodney King…” (29). In American History X a scene during family dinner discusses the case of Rodney King by Derek, the leading white supremacist in Venice Beach at this point, who defends the police for attacking King and argues for the injustice that police were put on trial for the altercation while King walked away. This scene forces us to evaluate Derek’s argument against our own understanding of the event and the media representation of it. This one event becomes isolated. It caused public outrage, both in the fictionalized film and in reality, but by focusing on just this one injustice, we are inadvertently suggesting that treatment of minorities in this way is somehow an anomaly, which is far from the case. Minimization is showcased in American History X by the use of a real-life event that was sensationalized by the media and the public who failed to see the larger picture and instead focused on the case of Rodney King, fooling themselves into believing that this is a rare occurrence and that racial profiling and racial violence is not as much of an issue as it used to be.

American History X is a brilliant portrayal of colorblind racism in that it forces the audience to turn the lens back upon themselves and to evaluate not simply the characters on screen, but also our own biases and accepted norms when it comes to inherent ideas about race and equality in America today. Visual effects in the film, such as the use of black and white scenes from the point from which Danny clues us in, rather late in the film, that Derek’s ideology began long before his father’s murder was actually because of their father’s own racist viewpoint when he questions Dr. Sweeney’s inclusion of Black Literature on the course syllabus and his opinion of how affirmative action is detrimental to the country. This ideology put forth by his father provides the foundation of Derek’s anger that he takes out on minority cultures after the death of his father, a firefighter who was killed while putting out a fire in a black, gang-ridden neighborhood. In the end of the film we are given a beautifully colored scene of young Derek--a symbolic portrayal of his innocence before he was brain-washed into extremist black versus white ideology. The four frames of colorblindness by Bonilla-Silva as applied to this film prove that colorblindness to race is not an antidote, and in some cases, may even exacerbate the issue. It is when the film turns from a color picture to black and white that the brutality of racism is most evident, proving, however subtly, that ignoring, avoiding, or minimalizing racism will not make it go away.

Works Cited

American History X. Dir. Tony Kaye. Perf. Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. New Line, 1999.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.