Reviewing the Systems of Inequality in BlacKkKlansman

By Samantha Sprouse

Editor’s note: This a research paper. We get it, it’s a little research-y. But we still thought it was pretty neat, and wanted to share it with you.

BlacKkKlansman is a 2018 American film directed by Spike Lee. The film confronts racism head on by portraying the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first Black police officer. In the late 1970’s, Stallworth worked undercover to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and prosecute its members. The film’s message is clear: Racism is systemic, pervasive, and enduring. Many aspects of systems of inequality are evident in the film.

The film begins with Stallworth getting hired at the Colorado Springs police department and being harassed by white police officers. Stallworth is asked to work undercover at an upcoming rally where Black Panthers activist Kwame Ture is giving a speech, because white police are fearful of a subsequent “race war.” There, he meets Patrice, a young student activist who encourages him to fight for Black liberation.

After being moved by the speech, Stallworth sees an ad in the local paper for the KKK. He calls the number, pretending to be white, and requests to join. Because Stallworth is Black, the police reluctantly agree to send Jewish, but white, “Flip Zimmerman” to pose as Stallworth. The movie follows these undercover meetings as Stallworth talks to the KKK on the phone and Zimmerman meets them in person, exposing their violent and hateful plans.

Photo courtesy of David Lee and Focus Features

One scene in particular demonstrates a stark difference between Black civil rights activists and white supremacists. In a scene titled “The Birth of Two Nations,” singer and activist Harry Belafonte recounts the violent and gruesome lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Simultaneously, clips are played of the KKK cheering and celebrating A Birth of a Nation, a racist 1915 film which revived the KKK (and was also shown at the White House by Woodrow Wilson [Editor’s note: WHAT THE FUCK?]).

There is poetic horror in watching the juxtaposition of these two groups: one mourning, seeking to protect and love themselves while preventing further violence, and the other inciting violence and reveling in its hatred. While “white power” means “we are superior,” “Black power” means “we are human beings.”

Margaret Andersen and Patricia Collin’s write in their 2016 book Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology that race—and other systems of inequality such as class, gender, and sexuality—are inherently social structures and not simply individual characteristics. Race encompasses both an individual and group identity. For example, in BlacKkKlansman the Black Panthers listening to Belafonte speak were not united in their experiences by physical characteristics such as their height or eye color, but by their race. Their race has led to similar experiences for them in society, just as it has for the group of white supremacists. This is related to the first theme Andersen and Collins outline. Race is socially constructed, and not from the result of the natural state of things.

“To racists, power is seen as a zero-sum game. By affording rights to minority groups, racists believe they are relinquishing their own power. Happiness and freedom are like pieces of a pie: the more minorities have, the less is left for them. Thus, equality is a threat.”

Additionally, this scene perfectly encapsulates the concept of a binary. Binaries are either/or categories, such as male/female, rich/poor, or, in this case, Black/white. To the white supremacists, you are either 100 percent white or 100 percent Black. To racists, power is seen as a zero-sum game. By affording rights to minority groups, racists believe they are relinquishing their own power. Happiness and freedom are like pieces of a pie: the more minorities have, the less is left for them. Thus, equality is a threat.

A social institution in particular that was not offered to Black people throughout BlacKkKlansman was legal protection. In Belafonte’s story of Jesse Washington, Washington was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in four minutes by an all white jury before being slain in the streets. Patrice and her friends were physically and sexually harassed by the police. The police were apprehensive to even hold the KKK accountable and then erased all records of the case. It was very clear throughout the film that Black people were treated very differently by the police and legal system. Alternatively, being white gave police in the film a “free pass” to be disrespectful and even incompetent. White cops were allowed to use racial slurs when talking to Stallworth and were never punished for racist offenses (until the very end of the movie).

To study this kind of inequality, one could simply compare the rates of incarceration among Black and white citizens. To take the research even further, one could compare rates of racial bias in police forces to the local incarceration rates. My hypothesis would be that in comparing cities with equal demographics and requiring all police officers to take racial bias assessments, cities with a higher racial bias would have a higher proportion of Black arrests and incarceration.

Photo courtesy of David Lee and Focus Features

The way race is depicted in BlacKkKlansman is a stark and relevant reflection of modern American society. The movie ends with snippets of Trump’s speech about white supremacists who murdered an activist in Charlottesville being “very fine people.” The white supremacists depicted in this movie sowed the seeds of an ideology which directly led to Trump’s election in 2016. Many have made the argument that these white supremacists’ views are too extreme to be mainstream, however the KKK’s own David Duke and countless other members served in the United States government. The same racist rhetoric is used today, just with different branding.

BlacKkKlansman examines many aspects of racism experienced by Black Americans and ties a thread to current events. The film was nuanced and did not portray Black people as a monolith, unlike many other films. There are many examples of systems of inequality in the BlacKkKlansman, and hopefully it is a film viewers can learn from for many years to come.

Samantha Sprouse is a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is earning her bachelors in psychology, works in marketing, and enjoys everything from photography to weightlifting. She has been interested in the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class since the age of 15 and will probably always have an inner riot grrrl.

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