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 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.
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 constant.
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 us all.
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.
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