Ethnicity and Linguistic Tyranny in America:
The Use of "Nigger" in American History XPasquale Palumbo
For all of the White Supremacists in the film, blacks are clearly the enemy and the focus of their ire, along with Jews, foreigners and everyone, in the words of Danny Vinyard, "who is not White Protestant." Strangely, Danny, played by Edward Furlong, does not use the word "nigger" in the hateful catechism led by Seth, but instead simply refers to them as black, in much the same way he does when he alerts Derek, played by Edward Norton, to the presence of the blacks in front of the house shortly before Derek commits his curb-stomping that would lead to his three year incarceration. Danny only uses the word when referring to Dr. Sweeney as one of those "proud to be nigger guys" (IMDB); while clearly racist, he is identifying Sweeney as black in the only acceptable way (in his mind) that he can. One possible reason for Danny's limited use of the word may be that while he is clearly headed down the same path as his brother, he has not taken the last steps toward full all-encompassing hatred like Derek.
Derek Vinyard, the outward face of Venice Beach's Disciples of Christ (D.O.C.) White Supremacy group is the greatest user of "nigger" in the film. While it is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the word enters Derek's consciousness because the film is not cut in a linear fashion (it is intercut with several flashbacks), there is some merit to a diachronic examination of the word as it applies to him and his encounters with and use of it.
Derek, like many others in America, is from an ostensibly lower-middle to lower class white family; his father, Dennis Vinyard, is a firefighter who works at least some of the time in Compton, a notoriously poor, crime-ridden black neighborhood. This is a multifaceted detail of importance: according to Kennedy, "nigger has been a familiar part of the vocabularies of white high and low. It has often been the calling card of so-called white trash—poor, disreputable, uneducated Euro-Americans" ("Strange Career" 3). As Dennis and his family fit into this description, it is not unreasonable to agree that this word would be prevalent in Dennis's consciousness; coupled with the fact that he complains that two black men have been added to his firehouse through affirmative action, which could pose a problem for him in terms of working with the "best men" as opposed to ones who got the job based solely on skin color, and adding where he works, we can easily see that this word would be always lurking along the surface of Dennis's mind. We have learned this information late in the running time of the film but early in the lives of the characters. Dennis is explaining his feelings about how he thinks "black literature is trying to replace white literature" because Derek explains that his black teacher, Sweeney, has introduced him to Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel with no shortage of the word nigger in it, ironically. These sentiments exist in the consciousness of many Americans. Indeed, one of the frightening things about American History X is that the insidious rhetoric spouted by Derek just before the attack on the Korean store is, though often couched in more polite ways, pervasive all around us, from our next door neighbors to the evening news.
Derek begins to see the power behind the word as being a label, and yet not simply one of identification, but also one of deprecation. The first indication that he will use this word pejoratively is upon the death of his father. Derek rages to a television news reporter that his father was murdered "in a fucking Nigger neighborhood he shouldn't be giving a shit about. He got shot by a fucking drug dealer who probably still collects a welfare check!" This assertion that the neighborhood is a "Nigger" neighborhood is a manifestation of his father's beliefs coupled with disapproval of the murderer, who is coded as black by Derek's assertion that he is a drug dealing welfare recipient; this stereotype is certainly promoted by the likes of Cameron Alexander (played by Stacy Keach), who is the mastermind behind the skinheads' organization. It is a typical assumption made by American society.
Derek's use of nigger as disapproval is illustrated again prior to the assault on the Korean food market. When Curtis, one of his accomplices, offers him marijuana, Derek retorts forcefully: "Curtis, what are you doing? Weed is for niggers. You put that away right now." Instead of saying that the use of marijuana is detrimental not only to Curtis's own well-being and to the group's mission, Derek equates the drug with blacks, meaning that Curtis has degraded himself. In fact, Derek admonishes him as if he is a child ("You put that away right now"), which serves to equate blacks with a sort of monster that a child should never aspire to be like. This echoes long-held practices whereWhite adults reprimanded white children for being worse than niggers, for being ignorant as niggers, for having no more credit than niggers. And white adults disciplined their children by telling them that unless they behaved they would be carried off by "the old nigger" or be made to sit with niggers, or be consigned to the nigger seat which was, of course, a place of shame (Kennedy "Who Can Say..." 86-87).
Curtis is the child and Derek is the parent, particularly in his place of authority among the skinheads; in fact Derek has become paterfamilias of his own family since the death of his father; certainly Danny looks to him as a father figure—a disapproving father figure when it comes to blacks or those that are sympathetic to them. Aside from the fact that his Jewish heritage should be enough to irk Derek, Derek's mother Doris's quasi-boyfriend Murray is also chastised for "poisoning my family's dinner with your Jewish, nigger-loving, hippie bullshit." It is Murray's sympathy toward Rodney King and other purportedly disadvantaged blacks that sets Derek off and leads him to degrade Murray as a "nigger-lover." The Rodney King episode certainly brought much thought to the forefront of the American mindset, especially coupled with the O.J. Simpson trial; both elevated racial tensions in America to levels not seen since the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Pasquale Palumbo is a graduate student at the City University of New York Lehman College.