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Prejudice, comformity and stereotyping in American History Essay

American History X is a great film that portrays prejudice, stereotyping and conformity. Prejudice is negative attitudes toward others based on their gender, religion, race, or membership in a particular group. Prejudice involves beliefs and emotions that can turn into hatred. Having an opinion or idea about a member of a group without really knowing that individual is a part of prejudice. Some people make judgments about a whole group of people without knowing very much about them. Sometimes people are afraid of those who seem different from them and unfortunately, they express that with name-calling and negative treatment. When people grow up with these ideas, sometimes it’s hard to get rid of them. Like in the movie American History X, a father is sitting at the family dinner table and states his opinion of why he feels certain people of minority groups got their job. This influences how his children feel.

Prejudice is a premature judgment, a positive or negative attitude towards a person or group of people, which is not based on objective facts. The prejudgments are usually based on stereotypes, which are shared beliefs about the characteristic traits, attitudes, and behaviors of members of various social groups including the assumption that the members of such groups are usually all alike. As the story line unfolds in American History X, the main character of the story will realize that not all people of a particular race are the same. A prejudgment may be based on an emotional experience we have had with a similar person, sort of our own personal stereotype. Stereotypes also provide us with role expectations.

How we expect the other person or group to relate to us and to other people. Our culture has many of ready made stereotypes such as leaders are dominant, arrogant men, housewives are nice but empty headed, teenagers are music crazy and very smart people are weird. Sometimes a leader or housewife or teenager is somewhat like the stereotype but it is an injustice to automatically assume they all are.

Prejudice can be in the form of negative put downs and helps those of us on top feel okay about being there. Prejudice can be a hostile, resentful feeling or dislike for someone or an unfair blaming or degrading of others.

Along with prejudice and stereotypes, goes conformity. The more people already agree upon or share a particular idea, the more easily a newcomer will turn to be converted to that idea, and the more difficult it will be for one already converted to reject that idea

Summary of The Film

The movie starts out through the eyes of Danny Vinyard, who idolizes his older brother Derek. Derek is seeking revenge for his father’s murder and burning a way to vent his rage. His father was a firefighter who was on duty one night putting out a fire at a crack house. His father was shot and killed by black drug addicts while fighting a fire in a crack house in a black neighborhood. He blames all black people for the death of his father. Derek hates anyone who is not a white protestant. Later it is learned that it wasn’t just his father’s death that shaped him, but his father’s conversation at the dinner table one night about racism.

Derek finds himself transformed by a philosophy of hate as he turns into a disciple of a radical group of a local white power movement. He becomes a leader in this white supremacy group called the DOC organizing the other white kids in his neighborhood under the rule of a leader of the group named Cameron who stays behind the scene to keep his record clean. The skinheads that rule his group are convincing and are a very bonding group. It is assumed in their world that that all races stick together and are at undeclared war with all others. They are very much prejudice and all conform to the same stereotype.

Despite Derek’s intelligence, his violent actions end in a brutal murder and ultimately, a prison sentence. One night two black kids attempt to steal Derek’s car, as the result of a playground feud that took place earlier. Derek fires his gun to kill and commits violent actions,

which ends up in the death of the two black kids who tried to steal his car. He’s convicted of murder and sent to prison for three years.

While in prison, Derek begins to see things in a different way. While in jail he learns some hard truths about life from a fellow inmate and his old high school principal that takes special interest in him. Avery Brooks, the principle ask Derek a powerful question. “Has any thing you’ve done changed your life?” But, when Derek emerges with a desire to change his attitude, he finds that words are not enough.

Three years later, everyone awaits Derek’s return. His mother Doris who prays for his safety, his girlfriend Stacey who longs for his return, and most of all Danny who’s desperate for his brother’s love and guidance, yet is driven by his own increasing white supremacy hatred. Danny who idolizes Derek has stepped into his shoes. Following the crowd of the white supremacy group the DOC. Avery Brooks the high school principle who has helped Derek also tries to help Danny by telling him to write a paper on his brother in hope to make him see things in a different light.

Unbeknown to Danny, Derek is a changed man. Fresh from prison, he no longer views hatred as a badge of honor. Ashamed of his past he is now in a race to save Danny and the Vineyard family from the violence he brought down upon them. His mind is open and sees the error of his ways. Upon reentering the real world, he must now turn his attentions to his younger brother Danny, who is swiftly heading down the same path as his brother. He tells Danny to listen to Avery Brooks the principal of the high school who has made Danny write a paper on Derek. He also tells Danny of the experience he had it jail and how it has changed him. It is too late and in the end Danny is murdered in school one day by one of the younger brothers of whom Derek had murdered.

What is said at the end of the movie seems to sum it up quite well. Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time. Derek says,” Its always good to end the paper with a quote.” ” We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Through passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.” (Lincoln, 1861)

Psychological Principles

This school of psychology that I believe this film falls under is the school of behaviorism. Behaviorism views observable, measurable behavior rather than internal mental processes as the appropriate subject matter of psychology. Stresses the key roles of learning and the environment in determining behavior. The movie also deals with social psychology. It defines the reasons of why and how we behave and emotions and feeling we have. The why of how we feel, what we do and how we come about the decisions we make. It also affects our attitudes, feelings and emotions that make us who we are and what we do.

Attitudes can be formed either positive or negative. When we hear parents, family, friends or teacher express positive or negative attitudes toward certain issues or people, we tend to adapt the same attitudes as them. This is true in the movie American History X when Derek listened to his father’s conversation at the dinner table about racism.

In observational learning, individuals learn by observing the behavior of other and then imitate that behavior. This is true in the film because the skinheads of the group learn by observing the others and behaving the same way. Observational learning results when people observe the behavior of others and not the consequences.

Derek uses stereotype thinking because he believes that all black people are bad and has a lot of hatred because of how his father died. Derek also learns to be part of the neo Nazi group by modeling Cameron the organizer and head of the DOC.

A person’s cognitive abilities, physical characteristics, personality, beliefs, attitudes influence both his or her behavior and environment. A person’s behavior can affect his feelings about himself and his attitudes and beliefs about others. Much of a person knows comes from the environmental resources such as television, parents, and books. Environment also affects behavior what a person observes can powerfully influence what he does. But a person’s behavior also contributes to his environment.

On the night Danny tells his brother that the black kids are breaking into his car he does not even think about what he is doing. A case of classical conditioning a form of learning that has powerful effects on attitudes likes and dislikes and emotional responses.

Conformity involves the changing of one’s attitude, opinions, or behavior to match the attitudes, opinions, or behaviors of others. The pressures to act like other people, sometimes despite our true feelings and desires. In American History X Derek, Danny and all the other skin heads are take on this idea to belong to the neo-nazi group. The scene in the movie where the skinheads destroy a neighborhood grocery store that is been taken over by a minority group show the skinheads conform to norms. These norms tell us what we should or ought to be thinking, feeling, or doing if we want to fit in with a particular group. Most people conform to norms without much thing about it.

Through the whole movie Danny idolizes his brother and there for his ways can also be contributed to social psychology. The presence of others influences the thoughts, feelings and how he behaves. The expectancy theory can also be related to Danny. He feels he is expected to be racist because of the situation his brother is in. Because of the day-to-day expose of his racist feelings and the neo-nazi group he does not think of anything else so he is in constant exposure to negative feelings.

While Derek is in jail and comes to realize that all people are not the same that there is good and bad in everyone he changes his attitude and behavior. Cognitive dissonance would come into effect here. Derek becomes aware of his ways and changes his behavior, attitude and reduces the importance of racism in his life.

Accuracy of Psychology Portrayed

American History X shows prejudice, stereotyping and conformity excellent. It shows how Derek comes about to be prejudice and to have his racial attitude. The movie shows that in the world of the skinhead neo Nazi, slogans replace thought, feeling and mindless hatred that is shocking. The bonding of this group portrays how conformity takes place. Derek’s attitude, behavior and speeches to the other kids persuade them to conform to the group. He makes them see things in his view. It shows how one person can change the thoughts and feeling of someone with a vulnerable mind. The movie also shows a way of breaking the vicious circle of hatred.

Between the two parts in the movie, Derek’s fathers conversation at the dinner table expressing prejudice toward a different race and how his father died shows how social learning can come into effect. Children learn from what they hear causing them to be prejudice and to stereotype other people. The neo-nazi group shared beliefs about the characteristics of members of a different racial group. The thinking made them all believe that all they are all alike.

In the end the move tells the shows the truth that prejudice has no intrinsic worth. It only harms those who feel its hurt and ultimately harms those who practice it.


American History X is a move that takes prejudice, stereotyping and conformity and shows how each one can relate to the other. The film makes you stop and think about your thoughts and emotions on these subjects. Part of the last quote of this move says a lot. That hate is baggage. If we open our minds and see the world as a whole we can then realize that not everyone in the world is the same because of their race, gender or religion or so forth. Being prejudice and stereotyping people only leads to harm. We should not conform to the beliefs of others if we feel differently. We should be who we are and not be persuaded to feel otherwise. American History X in the end shows us that no matter what social group we belong to in society it does not mean that we all have the same characteristics, attitudes or behavior.

It just goes to say that as we grow and experience things around us in our environment we tend to conform to the ways of society to form our personality and attitudes. The more we educate our young people and be good role models maybe then and only then can we prevent a situation like American History X form happening. A perfect example of conformity is in the scene which we see the skinheads bonding. They are led by Derek’s brilliant speechmaking and fueled by drugs, beer, tattoos, and heavy metal and need all insecure people feel to belong to a movement greater then themselves. Together they feel that in their world all races stick together and are at undeclared war with all others

My conclusion to this topic is that some people are oblivious to the emotional tones that they generate from their ignorant usage of stereotypical labels. I just think some people do not know it when they label someone and it brings out an emotional tone or negative implication. It’s all just ignorance. Or what people have been taught growing up in a government that strives for being the normal and the best. Learning through unintentional messages, whether through school, games, and especially television. It is time for people to unlearn what they have been taught and start opening their minds about this particular subject. It is the nature of prejudice that is the reason why we have violence in the world.

I don’t think Derek would have come to have a change in attitude or behavior had it not been for the experience he had in jail. Coming full circle and realizing the reality that not everyone is the same and just because of your race, religion or gender we all are individuals. Derek was a product of his environment. Having conformed to a group of neo-nazi people who do nothing but see their world and don’t think out side of it. This would be kind of like the saying thinking out of the box. Until his ordeal in jail he had experienced groupthink. A tragedy had to happen in order for a cultural change to take place.


Augustinos, M. (2001). Understanding Prejudice Racism and Social Conflict. Pennsylvania: W.B. Saunder Company.

Ruscher, J. B. (2001). Prejudiced communication: A social psychological perspective. New York: Guilford Press.

Welkos, R. W. (1998, October 21). The Tin Line Between Fear and Hate. [Online]. Available: http://www.geocities.com/sunsetstrip/club.3036/analysel.htm.

Wood, S. , & Wood, E. (1999). The Essential World of Psychology. Maine: Allyn & Bacon

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