Robert Jensen and
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
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’s 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 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
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
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 of racism.
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 Wosnitzer is associate producer of the forthcoming
documentary on pornography “The Price of Pleasure.” He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist
Resource Center, http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both
from City Lights Books). He can be reached at