American History X suggests that the American Nazi 'skinhead' movement is attractive to disaffected white, young men because it provides such individuals with a sense of community, family and belonging that they lack at home and in larger society. When the protagonist of the film Derek loses his father in a race-related incident, Derek becomes the leader of his own band of white supremacists. Only after serving time in jail for brutally murdering two African-American young men in retaliation for stealing his car does Derek begin to experience a shift in his consciousness and a Malcolm X-style jailhouse conversion. After being forced to see blacks as human beings, serving time behind bars, Derek leaves prison determined to extricate himself from the grasp of his former group's influence.
American History X is not about organized white supremacists like the Klu Klux Klan, under whose white robes lurk the faces of judges and respected community members (although Derek is a reasonably good student at his high school). What motivates skinheads like Derek to embrace racism is a sense of hopelessness and disaffection with society and their lives. They are united by a common culture of drugs, booze, tattooing themselves with racist images, heavy metal music and the idea that whiteness makes them superior to others in their racially diverse but Balkanized world. While the film does not excuse the skinheads' attitudes or action it does show them as products of an environment where racial and class identity define one's entire life: every group has its own niche in the social landscape, and gains its sense of purpose by defining itself against other groups. The world of lower-middle class skinheads like Derek offers few opportunities for young men to feel a sense of esteem and self-respect.
Through a series of flashbacks, the film shows that Derek belongs to a family whose values are based in isolation and hatred, rather than acceptance. His family is blue-collar, made up of a firefighter father, a sick mother suffering from smoking-related breathing problems, and a younger brother and two sisters. All are struggling to survive in an area where they can see the beauty of the Californian American dream, but never live it. One of his sisters does go to college, but her liberal views are a thin, unheard and mocked voice in a world dominated by men. Later in the film, when Derek's mother brings a Jewish man into the house, Derek is enraged and abusive: even though he is younger than his mother, male, racist, aggressive values reign supreme in the household.
While social factors, like the divided demographics of where the family lives and the family's relative poverty, cause Derek's feelings to fester, it is clear that Derek and his father see the world from a lens in which they always receive the short end of the metaphorical stick. The issue of affirmative action brings forth rage-filled diatribes by his father at the dinner table: "America's about the best man for the job," shouts…