Six years ago, I wrote about the portrayal of white supremacists on television for Religion in American History. What’s striking is that this essay still feels relevant today as I read headlines that suggest shock over white supremacists wearing suits, so I’m reposting a lightly revised version today.
In my Religious Intolerance class yesterday, one of my wicked smart students (this class is full of sophisticated, clever students, which makes me very lucky) made the fateful mistake of asking me what I thought about American History X, the 1998 film about white supremacy and what happens when you try to leave hate behind. They, of course, didn’t know that they tapped into one of my soapbox issues: popular representations of intolerant peoples (in this instance white supremacists).
This issue, which I have blogged about before, consumes me when I should be thinking about much more important things (like 1920s Klansmen and Klanswomen). My Intolerance class this semester, thus, revolves around popular culture and the media’s representation of intolerance, but the more I teach about this, the more I am interested not only how the victims of intolerance are portrayed but also those who are considered “intolerant.”
American History X‘s portrayal of white supremacists, particularly Neo-Nazis, strikes me as both stereotypical and novel. The Neo-Nazis, of course, read Mein Kampf, sport shaved heads, and ink their skin with white supremacist symbols and, of course, swastikas. They are dysfunctional, violent, backward, and uneducated (except the leader). They are members of a prison gang, and they hate African Americans as well as Jewish people. (More often than not, they are also Southern.) This is standard fare. Almost all television portrayals of white supremacists render them as burly, uneducated dudes whose looming physical presence should signal their racist agendas. See, the film says, we can easily identify the bad guys, and these types of guys are always the bad guys. (more…)