American History X: The Trump years

Anyone trying to understand Trump’s America should watch the 1998 film about race relations and neo-Nazism.

American History X
Edward Norton as Derek in American History X

Donald Trump’s comments this week about the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia last Saturday feel like a significant moment. Everyone knew before his election that Trump had sympathies with the alt-right, that vaguely-defined movement that has come to encompass white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis. But his failure to clearly condemn those groups after known neo-Nazi James Alex Fields allegedly drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one, has changed the political climate in America on a profound level.

With Trump in the White House, civil order in America is dangerously undermined. White nationalists of all affiliations now feel emboldened by Trump’s ambivalent stance, while those protesting on the opposite side (the “alt-left”, as Trump has called them) have increased their demands for suppression of all white nationalist activity, including the tearing down of more Confederate statues – the issue that provoked the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in the first place.

It is difficult to understand how this tinderbox situation might be defused. Even if Trump was to be removed from office somehow, the newly confident alt-right could cause social disorder on a new scale. Trump’s approval ratings may have sunk to 34%, but that still represents a third of the population and within that there is a constituent of mobilised and potentially armed activists.

Put simply, the current President appears to be the embodiment of the deep racial problems that America has never conclusively resolved throughout its history.

This rather bleak contemplation got my mind wandering to the realm of popular culture, and film interpretations of race in the USA. In particular I thought of American History X, the 1998 film directed by Tony Kaye, which follows the story of Derek (Edward Norton), a young man living in Venice, Los Angeles who becomes radicalised into neo-Nazism. If anything the film feels just as relevant now as it did in the 90s, when America witnessed the LA race riots and the race-fuelled trial of OJ Simpson.

Derek’s radicalisation is explained in large part by the death of his father, a cop who is murdered by a gang of black drug dealers. Angry at the world and at the clear racial divisions in his home city, Derek becomes involved with a local neo-Nazi gang that wages a campaign of intimidation and violence against black people and ethnic minorities in the neighbourhood.

After brutally murdering two black men attempting to break into his car, Derek is sent to prison. The film flashes backwards and forwards to show how, during his traumatic time in jail, Derek comes to realise the hollowness at the heart of his ideology, and the extent to which he has destroyed his own life and the lives of others.

He returns home following his release to stop his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from taking the same path. Danny is already hanging out with the same neo-Nazi group, and at the start of the film is told to write a new essay entitled ‘American History X’ by his black school principal Dr Sweeney (Avery Brooks), after he hands in a paper on Adolf Hitler’s Nazi treatise Mein Kampf.

There are several important themes to pick out from the film that still resonate today. One is the perception among white supremacists that black people and ethnic minorities are responsible for the majority of crime in America, and should therefore be met with violent opposition. In one of the film’s showpiece scenes, in which Derek berates his mother’s Jewish boyfriend over dinner, the young neo-Nazi sets out his world view.

“We’re so hung up on this notion that we have some obligation to help the struggling black man – cut him some slack until he can overcome these historical injustices,” he says. “It’s crap and the stuff you guys are saying just perpetuates it – all this liberal nonsense. Everyone’s turning and looking the other way while our country rots from the inside out.”

Derek also defends the beating of black man Rodney King by the LAPD which sparked the 1992 riots, arguing that King was high on drugs and acting aggressively when he was stopped in his car by the police. This debate over law and order continues to define race relations in America today, with the Black Lives Matter movement forming in 2013 in response to multiple cases of black people being killed by the police.

This movement has provoked a counter-reaction from some on the right, who have accused BLM of undermining the police and supporting violence. Trump, meanwhile, has talked tough on the solutions to crime in largely black areas, even threatening to send federal troops into Chicago.

Where some see deep-rooted social issues, inequality and poverty as the primary causes of murders in the city, Trump sees only lawlessness that must be stamped out. This week, he retweeted a member of the alt-right who had questioned why, with all the coverage of Charlottesville, there had been little media attention devoted to the 39 shootings and nine deaths that occurred in Chicago over the weekend.

Alongside the law and order question, a wider cultural issue is explored in American History X. In another pivotal scene, Danny remembers how his father may have set Derek on the path to neo-Nazism by warning him about Dr Sweeney, whom the young man idolised at that point.

His father irks at the idea that Derek is reading books as part of a black literature course, and warns him about falling for the “affirmative action crap” he thinks the teacher is promoting. “All this stuff about making everything equal – it’s not that simple,” he tells him.

“Now you’ve got this book… what happened to the other books on the course? … You’ve got to trade in great books for black books? Does that make sense? You’ve got to question these things Derek, you’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

This white insecurity about supposed cultural encroachment was at the heart of the clashes in Charlottesville, as white nationalists took exception to the decision to tear down a statue of Confederate commander and slave owner Robert E. Lee. Trump clearly backed this opposition in his press conference on Tuesday as he challenged the press over their interpretation of events.

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. By any stretch,” he said.

“Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E Lee… Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? … You’re changing history and you’re changing culture.”

Never mind that Confederate statues represent the cause of slavery, with all its associations of tyranny and racism. Trump sees them as an indelible part of white American heritage.

In American History X, Derek’s epiphany comes in prison as he gets to know black inmate Lamont (Guy Torry), who works the laundry shift with him. The pair strike up a friendship that reawakens Derek’s humanity.

In one scene, Derek is astonished to learn that Lamont was charged with assault and given a six-year prison sentence for accidentally dropping a stolen TV on a police officer’s foot. Derek’s reaction suggests he knows that such harsh justice would not be meted out to white people – a reality he had never considered before.

The film is a redemption story of sorts, and something to hold onto as we anxiously watch to see how the situation unfolds in Trump’s America. One thing is for sure: these problems have existed throughout American history, and are not going away any time soon.

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