"Crash" is a white-supremacist movie.
The Oscar-winning best picture - widely heralded, especially by white
liberals, for advancing an honest discussion of race in the United
States - is, in fact, a setback in the crucial project of forcing
white America to come to terms with the reality of race and racism,
white supremacy and white privilege.
The central theme of the film is simple: Everyone is prejudiced -
black, white, Asian, Iranian and, we assume, anyone from any other
racial or ethnic group. We all carry around racial/ethnic baggage
that's packed with unfair stereotypes, long-stewing grievances, raw
anger, and crazy fears. Even when we think we have made progress,
we find ourselves caught in frustratingly complex racial webs from
which we can't seem to get untangled.
For most people - including the two of us - that's painfully true;
such untangling is a life's work in which we can make progress but
never feel finished. But that can obscure a more fundamental and important
point: This state of affairs is the product of the actions of us white
people. In the modern world, white elites invented race and racism
to protect their power, and white people in general have accepted
the privileges they get from the system and helped maintain it. The
problem doesn't spring from the individual prejudices that exist in
various ways in all groups but from white supremacy, which is expressed
not only by individuals but in systemic and institutional ways. There's
little hint of such understanding in the film, which makes it especially
dangerous in a white-dominant society in which white people are eager
to avoid confronting our privilege.
So, "Crash" is white supremacist because it minimizes the
reality of white supremacy. Its faux humanism and simplistic message
of tolerance directs attention away from a white-supremacist system
and undermines white accountability for the maintenance of that system.
We have no way of knowing whether this is the conscious intention
of writer/director Paul Haggis, but it emerges as the film's dominant
While viewing "Crash" may make some people, especially white
people, uncomfortable during and immediately after viewing, the film
seems designed, at a deeper level, to make white people feel better.
As the film asks us to confront personal prejudices, it allows us
white folk to evade our collective responsibility for white supremacy.
In "Crash," emotion trumps analysis, and psychology is more
important than politics. The result: White people are off the hook.
The first step in putting white people back on the hook is pressing
the case that the United States in 2006 is a white-supremacist society.
Even with the elimination of formal apartheid and the lessening of
the worst of the overt racism of the past, the term is still appropriate,
in ideological and material terms.
The United States was founded, of course, on an ideology of the inherent
superiority of white Europeans over non-whites that was used to justify
the holocausts against indigenous people and Africans, which created
the nation and propelled the U.S. economy into the industrial world.
That ideology also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation
of every non-white immigrant group.
Today, polite white folks renounce such claims of superiority. But
scratch below that surface politeness and the multicultural rhetoric
of most white people, and one finds that the assumptions about the
superiority of the art, music, culture, politics, and philosophy rooted
in white Europe are still very much alive. No poll can document these
kinds of covert opinions, but one hears it in the angry and defensive
reaction of white America when non-white people dare to point out
that whites have unearned privilege. Watch the resistance from white
America when any serious attempt is made to modify school or college
curricula to reflect knowledge from other areas and peoples. The ideology
of white supremacy is all around.
That ideology also helps white Americans ignore and/or rationalize
the racialized disparities in the distribution of resources. Studies
continue to demonstrate how, on average, whites are more likely than
members of racial/ethnic minorities to be on top on measures of wealth
and well-being. Looking specifically at the gap between white and
black America, on some measures black Americans have fallen further
behind white Americans during the so-called post-civil rights era.
For example, the typical black family had 60 percent as much income
as a white family in 1968, but only 58 percent as much in 2002. On
those measures where there has been progress, closing the gap between
black and white is decades, or centuries, away.
What does this white supremacy mean in day-to-day life? One recent
study found that in the United States, a black applicant with no criminal
record is less likely to receive a callback from a potential employer
than a white applicant with a felony conviction. In other words, being
black is more of a liability in finding a job than being a convicted
criminal. Into this new century, such discrimination has remained
That's white supremacy. Many people, of all races, feel and express
prejudice, but white supremacy is built into the attitudes, practices
and institutions of the dominant white society. It's not the product
simply of individual failure but is woven into society, and the material
consequences of it are dramatic.
It seems that the people who made "Crash" either don't understand
that, don't care, or both. The character in the film who comes closest
to articulating a systemic analysis of white supremacy is Anthony,
the carjacker played by the rapper Ludacris. But putting the critique
in the mouth of such a morally unattractive character undermines any
argument he makes, and his analysis is presented as pseudo-revolutionary
blather to be brushed aside as we follow the filmmakers on the real
subject of the film - the psychology of the prejudice that infects
That the characters in "Crash" - white and non-white alike
- are complex and have a variety of flaws is not the problem; we don't
want films populated by one-dimensional caricatures, simplistically
drawn to make a political point. Those kinds of political films rarely
help us understand our personal or political struggles. But this film's
characters are drawn in ways that are ultimately reactionary.
Although the film follows a number of story lines, its politics are
most clearly revealed in the interaction that two black women have
with an openly racist white Los Angeles police officer played by Matt
Dillon. During a bogus traffic stop, Dillon's Officer Ryan sexually
violates Christine, the upper-middle-class black woman played by Thandie
Newton. But when fate later puts Ryan at the scene of an accident
where Christine's life is in danger, he risks his own life to save
her, even when she at first reacts hysterically and rejects his help.
The white male is redeemed by his heroism. The black woman, reduced
to incoherence by the trauma of the accident, can only be silently
grateful for his transcendence.
Even more important to the film's message is Ryan's verbal abuse of
Shaniqua, a black case manager at an insurance company (played by
Loretta Devine). She bears Ryan's racism with dignity as he dumps
his frustration with the insurance company's rules about care of his
father onto her, in the form of an angry and ignorant rant against
affirmative action. She is empathetic with Ryan's struggle but unwilling
to accept his abuse, appearing to be one of the few reasonable characters
in the film. But not for long.
In a key moment at the end of the film, Shaniqua is rear-ended at
a traffic light and emerges from her car angry at the Asian driver
who has hit her. "Don't talk to me unless you speak American,"
she shouts at the driver. As the camera pulls back, we are left to
imagine the language she uses in venting her prejudice.
In stark contrast to Ryan and his racism is his police partner at
the beginning of the film, Hanson (played by Ryan Phillippe). Younger
and idealistic, Hanson tries to get Ryan to back off from the encounter
with Christine and then reports Ryan's racist behavior to his black
lieutenant, Dixon (played by Keith David). Dixon doesn't want the
hassles of initiating a disciplinary action and Hanson is left to
cope on his own, but he continues to try to do the right thing throughout
the movie. Though he's the white character most committed to racial
justice, at the end of the film Hanson's fear overcomes judgment in
a tense moment, and he shoots and kills a black man. It's certainly
true that well-intentioned white people can harbor such fears rooted
in racist training. But in the world "Crash" creates, Hanson's
deeper awareness of the nature of racism and attempts to combat it
are irrelevant, while Ryan somehow magically overcomes his racism.
Let us be clear: "Crash" is not a racist movie, in the sense
of crudely using overtly racist stereotypes. It certainly doesn't
present the white characters as uniformly good; most are clueless
or corrupt. Two of the non-white characters (a Latino locksmith and
an Iranian doctor) are the most virtuous in the film. The characters
and plot lines are complex and often intriguing. But "Crash"
remains a white-supremacist movie because of what it refuses to bring
into the discussion.
At this point in our critique, defenders of the film have suggested
to us that we expect too much, that movies tend to deal with issues
at this personalized level and we can't expect more. This is evasion.
For example, whatever one thinks of its politics, another recent film,
"Syriana," presents a complex institutional analysis of
U.S. foreign policy in an engaging fashion. It's possible to produce
a film that is politically sophisticated and commercially viable.
Haggis is clearly talented, and there's no reason to think he couldn't
have deepened the analysis in creative ways.
"Crash" fans also have offered this defense to us: In a
culture that seems terrified of any open discussion of race, isn't
some attempt at an honest treatment of the complexity of the issue
better than nothing? That's a classic argument from false alternatives.
Are we stuck with a choice between silence or bad analysis? Beyond
that, in this case the answer may well be no. If "Crash"
and similar efforts that personalize and psychologize the issue of
race keep white America from an honest engagement with the structure
and consequences of white supremacy, the ultimate effect may be reactionary.
In that case, "nothing" may be better.
The problem of "Crash" can be summed up through one phrase
from the studio's promotional material, which asserts that the film
"boldly reminds us of the importance of tolerance."
That's exactly the problem. On the surface, the film appears to be
bold, speaking of race with the kind of raw emotion that is rare in
this culture. But that emotion turns out, in the end, to be manipulative
and diversionary. The problem is that the film can't move beyond the
concept of tolerance, and tolerance is not the solution to America's
race problem. White people can - and often do - learn to tolerate
difference without ever disturbing the systemic, institutional nature
The core problem is not intolerance but white supremacy - and the
way in which, day in and day out, white people accept white supremacy
and the unearned privileges it brings.
"Crash" paints a multi-colored picture of race, and in a
multi-racial society recognizing that diversity is important. Let's
just not forget that the color of racism is white.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race,
Racism and White Privilege. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Wosnitzer is associate producer of the forthcoming documentary
on pornography "The Price of Pleasure." He can be reached