The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How pop culture white’s supremacists help us feel good about ourselves

Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in “Justified.” (Credit: Robert Zukerman/FX)

“In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants,” Scott Shane reported in the New York Times yesterday. “But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”

Plenty of ink has been expended discussing Hollywood’s response to Sept. 11, from the case “24” made for torture and the ticking bomb scenario to just what the Central Intelligence Agency told Kathryn Bigelow about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden for “Zero Dark Thirty.” But after Dylan Roof’s attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the time seems right to consider how the entertainment industry has treated white supremacy in the years since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Sept. 11.

Even as pop culture has given us more stories about terrorists inspired by Islam, white supremacists have stuck around as villains, in part because they’re convenient; few people are going to complain that Neo-Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood are unfairly stereotyped when they’re painted as violent criminals. In the 1995 movie “Die Hard With A Vengeance,” the terrorist Simon (Jeremy Irons) exploits this antipathy, having John McClane (Bruce Willis) dropped into Harlem wearing a racist sandwichboard. McClane is, of course, innocent of such sentiments, and he’s saved by Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus Carver, who sees through the ruse and rescues him from violent retaliation. (The movie throws in terrorists sponsored by Iran’s religious authorities for good measure.)

But the differences in the stories we tell about Islamic terrorists and white supremacists are stark: Muslim extremism is apocalyptic, while white supremacy, however violent, comes across as fundamentally criminal. Terrorists inspired by Islam (or from Middle Eastern countries) are potentially everywhere, while white supremacists are contained in prison systems or rural communities. Recently, white supremacist violence has been part of tough male characters’ backstories.

But the thing that really distinguishes these stories most is how little attention they pay to the people of color who are the targets of racist rage and violence. White supremacists make particularly good targets for the Golden Age of television’s white male anti-heroes, who don’t have to earn anyone’s respect or support with conspicuous displays of moral goodness: unlike non-violent protesters, they can fight back against Neo-Nazis or members of the Aryan Brotherhood with relish. The result is that in Hollywood fiction, white supremacy’s not an opportunity to tell stories about structural racism, or about black resilience. It’s a device for sorting out bad white people and good — or at least slightly less bad — ones.

Two of the most memorable pre-Sept. 11 depictions of white supremacy focused closely on the foothold that particular strain of racist ideology has gained in prison systems, and on the use of sexual sadism to enforce racial solidarity.

“Oz,” a drama about the inmates of a maximum security prison that helped define HBO two years before Tony Sorprano swaggered onto the screen, was defined in part Aryan Brotherhood leader Vernon Schillinger (J. K. Simmons), who used rape and emotional manipulation to cement his control of the white prison population in the Oswald State Correctional Facility. In “American History X,” Derek (Edward Norton), who lead a Neo-Nazi gang outside of jail, becomes disillusioned by the strategic compromises the Aryan Brotherhood makes in prison; when he tries to push them towards a purer strain of racism, he’s raped in retaliation.

Neither “Oz” nor “American History X” suggests that white supremacy is confined to the prison system. Both Derek and Vernon were committing racist crimes before they were sent to prison, and Vernon is shown to have high-ranking Aryan Brotherhood allies among prison guards and public officials.

But in both cases, the central dramas occur between white men. Vernon has all sorts of schemes and targets, but one of the longest-running plots on the show concerns the enmity between him and his former victim, Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen). It’s Vernon’s sexual attacks on Tobias that harden a relatively weak, white-collar man into a person who can survive in a maximum security prison; when Tobias kills Vernon late in the show’s run, it’s less a victory than a kind of mutual defeat. And in “American History X,” Derek’s central conflict is how to liberate his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from the racism that landed Derek in prison. At the climax of the movie, Danny is killed in another example of cross-racial violence, becoming a sacrifice to seal Derek’s disavowal of white supremacy.

“Justified,” which debuted on FX in 2010, took a slightly different tack, examining what happens when a person who’s been converted to white supremacy in prison is released back into the world. The series’s pilot episode is devoted to an investigation of an attack on a black church by just such a person, though in a fashion that announced the show’s distinctive perspective and twisted sense of humor.

U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is sent back to Kentucky after a questionable shooting in Miami, and for his first case, finds himself investigating a murder and what turns out to be a rocket launcher bombing of a fringe black house of worship that operates as cover for a pot-dealing operation. The suspect in both crimes is Boyd Crowder (the hypnotically intense Walton Goggins), an old friend of Raylan’s from his coal-mining days, who after being incarcerated for tax evasion inspired by his involvement with the anti-government Sovereign Citizen movement, and returned to the free world sporting a swastika tattoo and a Confederate battle flag belt buckle.

“Justified” tended to portray Boyd’s racism as a posture that let him claim stature and a sort intellectual credibility rather than a particularly sincere belief. And while the church attack is a serious crime, it’s more about criminal economics than a genuine attempt to deprive African Americans of sanctuary. “I’m willing to bet you blew up that church in Lexington not because it was black but because it was a dope store,” Raylan told Boyd coolly. “Ten to one says you got paid to do it by some other dope dealer around didn’t like that preacher getting a free pass from the police.”

But if Boyd’s embrace of white supremacy was strategic, that didn’t render his views any less noxious, or make Boyd himself any less malignant. “Justified” deftly sketches out the combination of working-class anger, legal theory, anti-Semitism and faulty Biblical interpretation that informs Boyd’s particular strain of white supremacy in Raylan’s briefings, and in a conversation Raylan and Boyd have in a squat decorated with Nazi flags.  And Boyd executes his co-conspirator (Ryan O’Nan) because he suspects the man of being a government informant, someone who talks a big game about wanting to level up from defacing synagogues, but proposes an attack on a government construction project rather than harming people.

In subsequent seasons of “Justified,” Boyd uses his tattoos and his white supremacist connections to further his various schemes, even as he assumes other identities, including that of born-again preacher. And just as his racist associations linger, Boyd himself dogs Raylan, the shade of a region Raylan tried to escape and to which he was forced to return to atone for his own sins.

The best season of “Sons of Anarchy,” Kurt Sutter’s drama about a Central Valley biker gang with ties to Irish criminals, featured a group of white supremacists who were both more polished and more deeply committed to their racism than Boyd. Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin), the leader of the League of American Nationalists, was a smooth businessman who was smart enough to position his racism as a kind of sales pitch, presenting himself as a solid citizen who wanted to stop the titular bikers from selling guns to the black and Mexican gangs who were some of their best customers.

Zobelle had his own criminal interests, of course — he backed the Nordics, a less sophisticated white supremacist gang, in their meth business — but “Sons of Anarchy” deftly pulled out the racist threads in law-and-order thinking that were there for Zobelle to exploit. Like “Justified,” “Sons of Anarchy” was able to connect hard-core white supremacy to a larger social tapestry, rather than presenting it as an isolated phenomenon. And like “Oz” and “American History X,” Zobelle used sexual violence as a weapon: In one of the better recent stories about the long-term impact of rape, Zobelle had Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) gang-raped, intending the attack as a warning to her husband, Sons of Anarchy leader Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and son Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam).

One of the major weaknesses of “Sons of Anarchy” was the show’s failure to develop characters of color, or delve as deeply into the organizational conflicts of black and Latino criminal organizations as it did into the painfully dull machinations of its Irish crooks. And while the clash between the League of American Nationalists and the Sons of Anarchy, and the different approaches the show’s white cops take to the conflict between them, produces undeniably sophisticated writing and acting, there’s something weird and instrumental about the role of other gangs in the season.

Zobelle’s downfall comes when the Sons manage to convince other white supremacists that he’s a race traitor doing side deals with a gang called the Mayans.  The deal could have been a gesture of real solidarity between working-class gangs if there were well-developed characters in the black and Latino gangs that the Sons. Instead, it mostly comes across as the Sons working to preserve their gun business. The Sons are bad men, and they’d get worse and more violent in seasons to come. But the League of American Nationalists was, at least for a season, undeniably worse.

In other recent television shows, white supremacists have shown up less as a pressing threat, than as evidence that white male characters have had difficult pasts. In FX’s outstanding Cold War drama “The Americans,” Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has been tasked to fight the Soviet Union when the series starts, but he’s only recently off a stint infiltrating white supremacist organizations that has clearly affected him deeply. Though he’s safe home with his family, Stan still guards his memories of that time carefully, to the detriment of his relationship with his wife.

But in the series’ third season, Stan’s new partner Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), one of the few African-American agents in the Bureau at the time, manages to pry a little something out of Stan about the experience.  “Gaad tells me you worked in Arkansas with the white supremacists,” Adderholt tells Stan when they meet. “I’d like to buy you a beer sometime, hear those war stories.” Stan initially demurs, telling Aderholt, “I’m not much on war stories, but I’ll take the beer.” He eventually relents enough to let Aderholt ask him one question: “What did it take to fool them?” Stan’s answer suggests that both Soviets and white supremacists participate in a kind of quasi-religious thinking that makes them vulnerable. “Tell them what they want to hear, over and over and over again,” Stan tells Aderholt. “People love hearing how right they are.”

Something similar happens with Stan’s antagonists, deep cover KGB spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), in the show’s third season. It’s been a highly original twist on the Golden Age of television’s anti-hero formula to make Soviets into sympathetic figures. And one of the more obvious ways the show does it is to ally Elizabeth and Phillip with anti-racist movements. In the first season, “The Americans” gave us Gregory (Derek Luke), a charismatic American radical with whom Elizabeth once had an affair. But in the third season, the couple teams up with Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) who is — you guessed it — a young white anti-apartheid activist. When the trio burned an agent of the racist South African government alive, “The Americans” became the rare show to suggest that white people fighting against racism had morally degraded themselves in the process.

Like Stan on “The Americans,” Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), the troubled, charismatic cop from the first season of “True Detective” spent his share of time with white supremacists, and emerged the worst for it. The most visible symptom of Rust’s time undercover is his synesthesia, which at times shades into outright hallucinations, a product of the drugs he had to use to maintain his cover while infiltrating dangerous biker gangs. Rust tracks down his old biker gang targets, most notably a man with impressive facial hair named Ginger (Joseph Sikora), when he’s trying to pursue a lead in a ritualistic serial killer case.

The tracking shot that follows Rust through a robbery with the bikers got a lot of attention. But the bikers’ racism was ultimately just another bit of color “True Detective” threw into its fetid stew, and the black people they targeted in were even more inconsequential. Rust might have dressed down to infiltrate this white gang, but he was of an undeniably different class than these chubby, bearded, relatively incompetent thugs.

This fantasy of good white people proving themselves by defeating violent, virulent racists is so powerful that it reaches back into historical fiction and forward into the post-apocalyptic future.

“Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 revenge movie about a black man (Jamie Foxx) freeing his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a white slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who likes making black men fight to the death for sport, repeats this trope. One of the major themes of the movie is German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) growing disgust at slavery and the men who revel in their ownership of other human beings. He sacrifices himself to kill DiCaprio’s grotesque plantation owner.

And in “The Walking Dead,” one of the ways that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) proves that he’s a capable leader in the show’s first season is to best the racist survivor Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), who briefly assumed control of a group of survivors after beating and insulting a black man (IronE Singleton).

Pop culture’s white supremacists are scary, but they’re manageable — and their behavior only rarely implicates the rest of us. These stories allow us to believe that racism has been leeched off the majority of the American body politic and hyper-concentrated in few virulent individuals: Archie Bunkers are a thing of the past, and now we’re contending with a few hardcore Lost Causers. In sending white heroes or anti-heroes to dispatch them, the entertainment industry lets white audiences believe the comforting lie that we’re doing the bloody, glamorous work of cleaning our own house. It’s the rare show or movie that acknowledges that killing Vernon Schillinger, deprogramming Derek, exiling Ethan Zobelle, imprisoning Boyd Crowder or getting Stan Beeman and Rust Cohle out from undercover is just the beginning. When it comes to the more respectable manifestations of white supremacy, we’ve still got long hard times to come.