I just revisited the critically acclaimed film Crash (2004), in which racial tensions are unveiled as contingently operational. Racism animated in one location redounds throughout society as an eternal recurrence, prompting one act of violence after another. In the scene above, Jean Cabot, wife of local district attorney Rick Cabot, shouts derogatory racial stereotypes about Hispanic locksmith Daniel Ruiz, who is replacing the Cabots’ home locks following an armed robbery to which they were subjected earlier in the night. Jean is later cared for by her Hispanic housekeeper after falling down the stairs, a fall spurred by the sublimation of material difference beneath Jean’s anger at “them.” It is noteworthy that Jean’s narrative climax–her literal crash–involves a flight of stairs, something found in homes that her hired help could never afford.
Yet, the film’s gloss on “historically sedimented inequalities” (to borrow Hsuan Hsu’s critical phrase) privatizes the politics of race by subsuming identity formation within interpersonal ethics. Racism, the film tells us, is a personal choice. Eliminating racism is as simple as changing a few hearts and minds. While pervasive, this attitude fails to account for the material difference between different racial groups, as race is co-constitued with class, sex, gender, and other identity borders. For example, African-American youth are nearly 55 times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated for a first-time drug offense, a stark expression of white legal privilege. After labeling the Los Angeles Policei Department a “racist institution,” though, Crash portrays black criminality as a character defect, albeit one that whites too quickly presume. Structural and discursive racism are normalized. Minority impoverishment, maybe the leading cause of so-called “criminal” behavior, is dehistoricized, even mythologized.
Erasing racial coding lactifies prevailing power dynamics and race’s eventuality. Racism is instantiated as an immediate occurrence, with no unfolding past or future trajectory. More importantly, situating racism solely within social dyads obscures the possibilization of communal struggle against modern-day apartheid. Consider the following selection from the Apostle Paul:
But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not missing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31).
As Katharine Sarah Moody argues, Paul highlights in these verses the antagonism between those who cleave to the pre-existing social order and those who actualize social obligation by suspending Christianity’s “Big Other,” namely the basis of identity and social obligation in legal regulation. In Christ, social obligation is no longer based on covenantal genealogy, but radicalized love for one’s brethren, no matter what socioeconomic, biological, or material differences may stand in the way–recall Paul’s letter to the Galatians, verse 3:28, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul introduces a new universalism indifferent to socio-symbolic difference (other than Christian/non-Christian). Moody refers to this as a “second birth” and “second death” mirroring that of Christ (whose birth and death parallel the creation and fall of Adam in Christian narrativity). We are born into subjectivity; we may renounce the ideological field within which subjectivity is politicized as identity struggle. What Paul leaves us with, then, is an avenue for articulating the particular within the universal. A narrow reading of Paul would contend that the apostle calls for the complete disintegration of identity, much more identity politics. I hold, in contrast, that Paul’s call is multiplanar. Rather than forsake identity formation entirely (a spatiotemporal impossibility), Paul asks us to abandon the naturalized succession of historical status and, instead, locate identity politics within an irreducible movement toward sociopolitical emancipation. Paul tasks us with de-crystallizing guilt toward the past–whether in the form of black missions or white burdens–and, in Fanonian terms, finding ourselves in a world where we have one right alone: demanding human behavior from the Other.