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A Crash Course in Racial Perceptions

Want to know what's really behind Americans' racial biases? See the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar.
 
 
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[Editor's Note: Although some of AlterNet's bloggers and writers have aired heavy criticisms of "Crash," Earl Ofari Hutchinson presents his reasons why it was the right choice for the Academy.]

"Crash" deservedly won the Academy award for best picture because it forces blacks as well as whites to honestly confront their stereotypes.

The film sets the course from the start when it goes squarely for "racial correctness." The opening shot has two young blacks charging out of a restaurant steaming mad. One of them claims that a waitress ignored them, then gave them lousy service, and the whites in the restaurant gave them hostile stares solely because they were black.

Then a white couple passes them on the street, and the wife locks arms with her husband for fear the two men would mug them. In an angry tirade, the angered young black covers the wide gamut of myths, stereotypes and negative perceptions that whites supposedly have of blacks.

While "Crash" pierces and pokes fun at racial stereotypes, it's the black perceptions about those stereotypes that makes the film unique. Many blacks take it as an article of faith that that most whites are hopelessly racist. A comprehensive Harvard University opinion poll in 2002 found that the racial attitudes of many whites about blacks are tightly wrapped in stereotypes. The poll reinforced the fervent belief of many blacks that whites racially disdain them. It's not that simple.

The majority of whites are probably genuinely convinced that America is a color-blind society, and that equal opportunity is a reality. They repeatedly told the Harvard pollsters that they believed blacks and whites had attained social and economic equality. Sure, the figures on income, education and health care show a gaping racial lag between blacks and whites. However, perception drives reality.

If many whites think racial equality is a reality, that's more proof to many blacks that whites are in deliberate racial denial. But many whites don't claim blacks are treated equally simply to mask their racial hostility to blacks. They no longer see "Whites only" signs and redneck Southern cops unleashing police dogs, turning fire hoses on and beating hapless black demonstrators. Whites turn on their TVs and see legions of black newscasters and talk show hosts, topped by TV's richest and most popular celebrity, Oprah Winfrey.

They see mega-rich black entertainers and athletes pampered and fawned over by a doting media and an adoring public. They see TV commercials that picture blacks living in trendy integrated suburban homes, sending their kids to integrated schools and driving expensive cars. They see blacks such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in high-profile policy-making positions in the Bush administration. They see dozens of blacks in Congress, many more in state legislatures and city halls. They see blacks heading corporations and universities. Many whites actually believe that racial problems are a thing of the past and that blacks who incessantly scream racism about their plight are afflicted with racial paranoia.

On the other hand, many blacks erroneously assume that whites live an Ozzie-and-Harriet life of bliss and are immune to personal and social angst. They are puzzled when middle-class whites shoot up their suburban schools, and neighborhoods, bludgeon their children in their homes, use and deal drugs, have high suicide rates and commit bizarre anti-social acts. They don't hear and see whites' pain.

In "Crash," a middle-class white couple lives in a cloistered world, scared of and angry with minorities and in perpetual turmoil. It's fear, ignorance and paranoia to the nth degree. But it also makes perfectly good sense to them to feel as they do. The truth is that millions of whites are also trapped in a downward cycle of need and poverty, and have about as much chance of crashing into America's corporate boardrooms, joining university faculties and getting elected to Congress as do poor blacks. The sense among many whites that they are fast losing economic and social ground in America fuels much of their fury over affirmative action programs.

In the film, a white LAPD officer comes off as an unreconstructed bigot. Yet he's also beset by the psychological pressure and financial burden of taking care of his ailing father. He blames his father's medical and financial slide on the loss of his janitorial company's contract to a minority-owned company. Perhaps he's wrong, but that's what he believes. Many whites think that society is spinning out of control and that they have little power to run their lives. They see the federal government as the culprit. They blame it for being pro-higher taxes, pro-bureaucracy, pro-immigrant and pro-criminals' rights.

A mix of economic slippage, political cynicism and personal alienation, not blind racial hatred drives much of white anger toward blacks. An equal mix of personal alienation, false perception and distrust drives much of black anger toward whites. That's the not-so-subtle message of "Crash."

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).