Crash and the Ethnic Within 

Kimberly DeFazio

Racial and ethnic differences are markers that capital has always used to lower the cost of labor.  They are imaginary distinctions deployed to justify increasing the rate of profit and undermining working class collectivity.  How those differences are dominantly understood—for instance, what constitutes the causes of otherness (whether "biology" as in the case of older forms of racism, or "culture" as in the contemporary moment)—thus changes as capital's needs change.  

The war in Iraq, the most recent exposure of the US's systematic torture, humiliation and killing of the other outside the US, and the brutalities of ongoing racism within the US revealed by Katrina have made many Americans uncomfortable with the discourse of "otherness" propping up the administration's war mongering and naked imperialist conquests.  Such events have of course also produced growing resentment against the US around the world, making investments more risky and therefore more expensive.  These threats to investment and US policy, which are ultimately tied to US capital's ability to increase profits globally and thereby shore up its declining economic position in the global market, call for new ways of talking about (and ultimately re-naturalizing) racial and ethnic difference—new ways of reading difference that differ markedly from the "us" and "them" rhetoric used to justify "gunboat" imperialism. 

Difference re-understood as the "ethnic within" is one such way the liberal-left, which has never been opposed to imperialism but only its military manifestations, has sought to distance itself from the flagrantly militaristic policies of the Bush administration.  The "ethnic within" is an existential state of being in which difference between the self and other has been internalized. Theoretically rooted, on the one hand, in the cultural re-writing of the political economy of race in terms of cultural differences ("ethnicity") that are placed beyond the structures of class (as in the writings of Stuart Hall, Cornell West, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) and, on the other, in the psychoanalytic discourse of Julia Kristeva's  "strangers to ourselves" (in which "the foreigner lives within us" and by "recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself"), the ethnic within is a post-race notion of complex sameness that shifts the locus of cultural otherness to the inside of the self, which is made "strange" to itself.  It is a call for identification with (rather than a celebration of radical heterogeneity), on purely affective terms that dissolve the material structures that produce race. Immanently opposed to the "ethics of difference" that dominated theory in the West for the last 3 decades, the ethnic within establishes a new site of sameness in a divided self.  It is a call for a more ethical imperialism that posits a new found sense of spiritual unity at a moment when the conditions of the American "way of life" are quickly eroding. 

Crash, the Oscar-winning film co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, is exemplary of this ethical re-inscription of difference.  Crash is a lesson in seeing social conflicts as externalizations of a fundamentally internal (and universal) crisis.  It treats racial and ethnic difference as effects of a deeply subjective alienation rather than rooted in the global division of labor that deploys difference for profit. Racism, the viewer learns, is not a historical phenomenon but an existential one—a more "fundamental" crisis caused by a division within the self.  Which is another way of saying that the film ideologically dissolves racism into existential crisis and thus disappears racism. 

The film, however, has been widely viewed as a courageous effort precisely to expose (not re-mystify) the ongoing, daily reality of racism. In the tradition of such films as Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Crash unfolds formally through a series of interrelated vignettes, all of which in Crash are centered around race and racial conflict in modern day Los Angeles. The film treats racial conflict quite literally—in terms of violent interpersonal collisions. Virtually all exchanges, for instance, involve a barrage of racist sentiment and stereotypes, many escalating into traumatic scenes of violence and humiliation: a rich white woman accuses a Mexican-American locksmith and family man of being a "gang banger";  a Persian shop owner is assumed to be "Arab" and called "Osama"; an African-American homicide detective (whose story provides the main frame of the film) continually calls his Latina partner and lover a "Mexican" though he knows her parents are from Ecuador and Puerto Rico. 

At its most superficial level, then, the film consists of a succession of scenes in which people of diverse races and ethnicities are each subject to—and perpetrators of—varying degrees of violent racist assault, whether verbal or physical. Crash's theme is so prominent that the film has often been accused of "heavy-handedness."  The viewer of the film, which situates racism as primarily a way of thinking and speaking (i.e., ideas not economic practices), is, in effect, made to "feel" the visceral experiences of racist discrimination, with the implication that this affective treatment of racism will "shock" viewers into a more ethical consciousness.   

Unlike the older forms of liberal "empathy," in which one recognizes a common humanity in the other as a basis for social inclusion, however, Crash's visceral treatment of race is instead more a post-empathy lesson in recognizing a deep-seated common inhumanity that leads to violent acts of exclusion that can only be addressed through surprising acts of local redemption. The ways in which racism is an effect of the "invisible" (to daily experience) wage-labor relation, which systematically exploits workers, forcing them to compete for less and less and making "otherness" a valuable tool of fracturing the international working class—is not the concern of the film. The film instead is centered on the effects of racism: the experiential and affective reality of race.  In fact, what is quite telling about the film is the way not only the critics and viewers have responded, but the ways in which it is talked about by the actors involved, many of whom ended up either becoming producers or helping to get funding for this "indie" film (which status lends the film its aura of "seriousness").  In the words of Don Cheadle, one of the producers and main stars of the film, the significance of the film is that it exposes that "this is what people think, this is how people talk, this is how it is when people aren't being polite, and can we be honest enough to admit that?" 

But what is represented as "real" and "realistic" is in fact the substitution of the effects of racism for its source.  At stake here is the way "reality" throughout the film is conflated with experiential reality, a conflation which is at one level effected through the use of Altman-esque vignettes.  Key to this technique in Crash is a network theory of social relations in which people are represented as connected, not through underlying objective structures but through random coincidences, accidents, or "crashes" (a resounding metaphor throughout the film).  Such plot structures, and the fast pacing of scenes, have virtually become cinematic shorthand for the culturalist theory of globalization.  The assumption embodied in such techniques is that the more global the world becomes, the more "connections" there are—but at the same time, the more society seems to evolve through accidents and coincidences, rather than by any totalizing logic; the straining of the viewer's perception to conceptually organize multiple character relations reinforces the sense that social relations are excessive and beyond the reach of reason and analysis.  The viewer is given an experiential sense of complex connection in the global city of LA, not an understanding of its historical grounding which requires not experiential but conceptual knowledge.  These are crucial aspects of the film's treatment of race, which has been emptied of its class content and submerged in the murky shallows of a cultural-existentialism. Following the cultural (post-structural) rewriting of race as ethnicity, which has become a code for lifestyle differences, race thus is "everywhere"; but, because its roots in material structures have been erased, race is also "nowhere" in the film.  It is on the basis of suspending the material structures of race and racism that the film can put forward the notion that social conflicts like those around race are more fundamentally the product of unknowable internal crises and as such can only be treated experientially and affectively.   

It is precisely such an assumption that frames the opening sequence of events and establishes a central dimension of "the ethnic within." In the opening narration of the film, spoken off-screen, Graham, an African-American homicide detective whose car has just been rear-ended, says: "It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." This opening frames in purely affective terms the ensuing narrative and its tensions, which involves tracing the complex and interconnected racially-motivated events which led to the killing of the detective's younger brother by a white cop.  We lack a sense of direct physical and emotional contact with others, the film tells us, and thus seek out violent forms of connection in order to fill a void.  The detective's brother's death, on these terms, is a void-effect, to be experienced through pathos, affect and alienation (which have always characterized bourgeois angst).  Racism becomes an effect of this gap in the self, and also the very means by which people "connect" in the disconnecting world of the global city of LA. Visceral, experiential racial conflict (which is in reality the result of structural inequality) is treated by the film as the way people attempt to overcome their deep-seated alienation—if only momentarily.  To be "honest" means to admit that one's self-estrangement leads to violence against the other.  

The relation between the divided self and racial conflict is perhaps made most explicit by Officer Ryan, a racist cop, in response to his partner's objection to his treatment of African-Americans: "You think you know who you are.  You have no idea."  You are in other words different from yourself, from who you know yourself to be.  But you can come to know yourself—through experience and if you are "honest" about what experience teaches you, as a complex, complicated, divided individual.   

This inner difference is the logic through which the characters undergo pivotal metamorphoses.  In numerous situations, what each character "is" (culturally), is shown to be different from what he or she initially appears to be: they emerge as more internally "complex" characters.  For instance, in one of the climactic scenes in Crash, the racist white cop (Officer Ryan), who just the night before had pulled over an African-American upper middle class couple and sexually assaulted the woman in front of both the man and the cop's white partner, coincidentally arrives on the scene of an accident in which the woman he had assaulted is trapped in her overturned SUV.  She is hanging helplessly upside-down, caught in her seatbelt, as gasoline drips from the engine toward a nearby car already in flames.  Heroically, the cop risks his life to help her escape just seconds before the vehicle explodes.  As the woman is taken away by the paramedics, the viewer's focus is on the cop whose expression is one of self-recognition and acknowledgement of what he had done to the woman the night before.  He has, in other words, found a brief moment of redemption in his short-lived heroism. 

But it is not only the overt racists who undergo such "transformations."  All those who profess to be critical of racist stereotypes and profiling have transformations in the reverse direction. For instance, Officer Hanson, the cop who refuses to work with his partner because of his racism, ends up being the murderer of the detective's brother, Peter.  After "charitably" picking up Peter, who had been hitchhiking in the snow, he shoots him over a misunderstanding rooted in the cop's own racist fears. "Ironically," in fact, it is Peter's effort to establish some basis of commonality with Hanson that Hanson confuses with an attempt to pull out a gun; he shoots him "defensively," and then drags the body to the side of the road and sets the car on fire. Beneath his liberalism, the film suggests, is not only a complicity with racism but a desperate, deadly effort to conceal it.  The film, here, dismantles the older liberal forms of "empathy" for the other, which is increasingly outdated to capital and revealed as bankrupt.

An even more telling instance is the way in which Anthony, the African-American character who expresses the sharpest structural and class conscious understanding of race, is mocked by the film by representing the character as seeing himself "outside" of racism, through his ability to analyze it, yet participating in it various forms of it.  He critiques the racist construction of the African-American young male as "thug," and immediately car-jacks a white couple who think he's a thug; he only reluctantly (at the insistence of his friend) brings a Korean man to the hospital after he has mistakenly run over him; and he refers to all Asians as "Chinamen." I leave aside for now that the film thus perpetuates the myth of "reverse racism," which makes the racist structure of the white property-owners and their protector's the same as the victims of such a system…  The contradictions of his beliefs are perhaps made most evident at the end of the film when he is told by a wealthy African-American who had been brutalized by the police and humiliated at work, that "You embarrass me, you embarrass yourself," the effect of which is to confirm for the viewer the racist idea that black people are their own worst enemy. Anthony learns that he was never "outside" of the racist structures he thought himself to be.  More fundamental, however, is the message that there is no outside at all.  Critique and analysis—the militancy he complains earlier about being lost in the black community—are illusions.  They get one nowhere.  The film, then, collapses liberalism, which has always given a human face to racism, and a more radical and systematic struggle to end racism by locating its roots in capitalism—precisely the kind of struggle that is now being waged in nations in the global South to combat imperialism. 

The ultimate lesson of the ethnic within, a discourse of the bourgeoisie of the global North, is that there is no outside—not only to race and racism, but to this deeper-lying existential condition which makes us simultaneously different from ourselves and united in our self-division.  All people—all races, ethnicities, classes—are complicit in racism. All that they are capable of are momentary, unpredictable ethical gestures.  Through this lens, state-sanctioned racism in the police is equated with, for instance, the African-American's racist comments about Asians, and the Asian's comments about Latinos. But even more importantly, through this lens, which internalizes historical contradictions, what is erased is the real basis of race and racism in the wage-labor system which forces people to sell their labor for wages, throwing them into increasingly brutal conditions of competition against each other while profit accumulates in the hands of the few.

The attempt to equate and neutralize all social positions thus leads to numerous contradictions which undermine the film's overt premise.  On the one hand, for instance, virtually all characters (whether white or black, rich or poor) are equally subject to the same contradictions.  On the other, the film reserves its greatest redemptive rewards for the white racists who become "conscious" (and here it is not an accident that the only actor to win an Oscar is Matt Dillon, who played the racist cop), and the greatest pity, if not scorn, for those who are critical of racism.  Even on its own terms, there is little offer of any "redemption" to the black characters in the film, most of whom are represented as subjects of constant humiliation and loss of integrity—without any ability or will to fight racism.  They, like other characters, are stripped of their class relation and solidarity.  And because the only "alternative" offered by the film—a mocked gesture to an older militancy—is an alternative that is as suspect as any other, there is no basis on which to see race as structural, and to wage a structural fight against it. The stark lines of white and black remain throughout the film, despite its effort to submerge them in existential complexity.

Moreover, for all its effort to challenge dominant racial stereotypes, the maintenance of the racist construction of the "Arab" is central to the unfolding dynamic. In one of the first scenes of the film, Farhad, a Persian small store owner, is at a gun store with his daughter trying to buy a gun to protect his store.  In the process of the exchange, the gun salesman assumes Farhad is Arab and says, "Plan the jihad on your own time, Osama."  ("When did Persian become Arab?" his wife asks.)  As the film progresses, Farhad becomes increasingly angry and suspicious, even of someone, like the Mexican locksmith, who is trying to help him.  As a result of his ultimately false assumption that the locksmith has looted and destroyed his store, Farhad attempts to kill the locksmith—and he would have killed him and the locksmith's little girl, had Farhad's own daughter not put blanks in is gun.  In other words, while exposing the common racist association on the part of Americans of those who "look" "Middle Eastern" with "terrorist" "Arabs," the film leaves unchallenged the racist notion of the angry Arab who, on the basis of a false belief (a belief in Islam versus Christianity) kills innocent civilians in an act of revenge for loss of property.  This is, at another level, also an implicit re-writing of imperialism from the standpoint of the imperialists: those who take "action" and fight against the theft of the labor and resources of the Middle East "mistake" as "thieves" those who are actually trying to "help." 

Crash's immanent contradictions, in other words, are an effect of the material relations it is attempting to re-narrate in "safer" terms.  The film is thus exemplary of the way in which older notions of race and class identity are being substituted with more contemporary forms that re-package post-al assumptions.   Unlike both the culturalism of the right (i.e. W.W.M. Eislen, Samuel Huntington, Dinesh D'Souza), which treats difference in essentialist terms—i.e., the difference between the West and the rest is absolute and transhistorical—and the older forms of humanism which saw the self as whole, complete, unique, the left cultural theory of the ethnic within sees "humanity" as best expressed in the alienation from the self all humans experience as a result of existential otherness.  Post-al culturalist theories have of course always emphasized the fragmented and dispersed subject (identity, as Stuart Hall has said about "new ethnicities," is never "complete," as the subject is always in the process of change in relation to the complex external relations it confronts).  But the new culturalist theories shift the location of otherness inward to establish a new post-difference sameness which abandons democratic ideals of inclusion and is reconciled to the economic and political hardships that increasingly characterize the American way of life, especially for workers of color.  It is in part a response to the fact that cultural difference, which has on the left been marketed as the space of agency, has not resulted in greater equality among whites and people of color nor has it increased "tolerance" and affirmation of diversity.  Just the reverse.  In 2001 on average the wages of college educated black and Hispanic men were about 30 percent lower than college educated white men, and the median income for a white family was $44,517, while Blacks earned only $29,470 and Hispanics $33,565. Despite the legal end of segregation, there are seven times more African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 than white men of the same age in prison, though African-Americans make up only 12 percent of the US population, and black infants are over two times more likely than white infants to die before the age of one.  Conservatives have been successful in not only waging campaigns for the re-segregation of education but in building an apartheid wall to prevent Mexican workers from crossing the US border.

In contrast to what Crash suggests, what the left needs to provide is not yet another re-description of the violent experiences people are subject to on a daily basis. It needs instead to critique the system which produces such experiences. The struggle for economic and social equality will be advanced, in other words, not by sentimentalizing and subjectivizing social violence, but by the relentless relating of the experiential "visibilities" of capital to the invisible structures of exploitation; not by submerging class in affect, but by conceptualizing the collectivity of working people worldwide that is the basis of a future without racial and ethnic violence.

THE RED CRITIQUE 12 (Winter/Spring 2007)