The Oscar-winning best picture -- extensively prefigured, especially by white liberals, for proceeding an honest discussion of race in the United States -- is, in fact, a holdup 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 are responsible, anyone from any other racial or ethnic group. We all carry around racial/ethnic baggage that’s filled 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’s emerges as the film’s dominant message.
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....