Collisions of the Huddled Masses

29, March 2012

Collisions of the Huddled Masses

                In the movie Crash the opening scene is of a massive freeway accident in Los Angles California. The director uses this scene to tell the story of the previous twenty hours of each person touched by the crash. Its focus is on the crises of the victims and how they eventually came to peace with or at least achieved a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Perhaps for the viewer though, the most outstanding and striking issue that the movie deals with are the concepts of racism. Movie handles the subject in an appropriate and forthright way that allows the viewer to question the scenes and as Martin Luther King Jr. said; Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. As almost every character regardless of who they are in the film makes open potentially inflammatory statements regarding the race of the people their dealing with while they’re struggling to come to grips with the issues they need to resolve in the film. The Writers and Director of Crash handle the subject of racism so well and in such an open matter of fact way,  that it can be used as a starting point to begin honest dialogs of the issue of racism itself.

It allows us to ask ourselves; Does the old definition of racism still fit? Are we in need of new one? Is racism ever going to completely go away? How far have we really come in removing from our society?  All of these questions are valid in today’s society, especially since we often pride ourselves on how far we’ve come. However, in order to make sure the progress that we all think has been made has actually been achieved we all need to take a second and assess how far we have truly come. To this end we’ll focus our examination mainly on one individual and his interactions with “his” group characters from the movie.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines racism as;

  • The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
  • Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.

The Oxford’s definition still seems to fit in a fair amount of situations but not necessarily all, so this leads us to the next question. Yes, a change in how we define racism might be warranted. Perhaps to further the scope of the definition to exclude comments made when a person is under extreme duress, when they’re lashing out because of their own fear or pain or they have found themselves in a situation that is beyond their control.

Officer John Ryan played by Matt Dillon is the character from the movie that most needs to be looked at. His story starts when Ofc. Ryan is trying to get his father’s insurance company, an HMO to approve and change in doctors for him because the doctor he’s currently seeing seems to be doing nothing to treat the medical problems his father is having and in fact his father seems to be getting worse.  There isn’t much Ryan can do for him at home, which he very frustrating as his fathers condition slowly deteriorates before him. As a result of his home situation and his anger and frustration with the slow and tedious process the insurance company is putting him through he adopts a angry, self-righteous and condescending tone while questioning the woman on the phone as to her ability to properly do her job, also questioning her qualifications for the job, and even how she got the job. He also tells her she’s keeping people who are qualified to do her job from the position.

Because of his actions could he be considered racist? It’s probably fair to say that on some level he is either knowingly or unknowingly letting racism influenced his thoughts on some level.  Or perhaps he’s just trying to cope with a difficult situation that would have left most of us extremely angry and frustrated.  Perhaps, racism like people who use it either by intent or unconsciously cannot be defined by so narrow a definition if one is looking really get a handle on how and why we think, talk, or act in ways that can be described as racist, even when generally our actions and attitudes would not lead others to believe that of us.

So where do our racist inclinations come from? Is there some special section of our brains reserved just for our racist feelings? No, they’re part of a larger section of our psychological make-up, the part that helps all of us define ourselves as who we are, helps determine our sense of self-worth, and motivates us to take action to achieve the things we want and need. the section of the brain that tells us we’re the best at something or that we’re better then another person or at least the one next to them, that we are that way because we’re male or female or maybe we’re White, Black, Asian, or Latino, or maybe because we’re smarter than them (or at least perceive ourselves to be.), or better looking, more social, etc. etc. etc.  If you have ever said I’m the best at something, felt or expressed your superiority regarding your abilities then you’re using the same part of your brain where at least partly your racist ideas come from.  In psychology they call this the Ego.  In the movie, Shaniqua Johnson played by Loretta Devine is the woman at the insurance company that has her Ego bruise by Ryan. She then returns the favor to Ryan by refusing to capitulate to him. Without a healthy ego the average person would constantly be “pushed aside” by others and generally incapable of functioning normally in society.

However there are two other important psychological aspects that help reign in our ego so we don’t bully everyone around us, or take things we have no right to take,  or chide and berate those around us whom we feel don’t measure up to our standards. They are the Super Ego & the Id. In the movie before his big self-actualization Ryan is a character highly driven by his Ego.

The Id is that part of our brains where our instincts come from, and in part some of our baser emotions especially those regarding our own sense of self worth, and self preservation.  The Id gives us our core set of instincts for survival and problem resolution as well as self-image.

It is the Super Ego that allows us to learn behaviors that can replace or modify our instincts and allow us to control them so they do not control us.  Therefore it is here that all of us learn to control our anti-social behaviors and to develop the understandings that given all that we are, we still from time to time need others, and need to be able to successfully interact with each other in ways that do not promote conflict.

Perhaps the most compelling scenes in the movie are the between Matt Dillon’s character Ofc John Ryan and the Thayers. Cameron Thayer played by Terrence Howard and Christine Thayer played by Thandie Newton.  Ofc Ryan is very upset over the fact that he can’t get his father’s insurance company to approve him to go to a different Dr. because the one he’s currently using seems to be doing nothing towards treating his dad for the medical problems he’s having. He’s so upset and frustrated with the situation and he berates Shaniqua Johnson who works at the insurance company by telling her that the only reason she has her job is because she’s black and that her inability to do her job properly is causing his father not to receive the medical attention he needs.  Rightly so this upsets Shaniqua and she stops trying to help him.

The Thayers drive a black Lincoln Navigator like the one that gets car-jacked from the D.A. and his wife. So when the call comes out over the police radio that a navigator had been stolen Ryan decides to pull over the Thayers even though his partner Ofc. Tom Hanson played by Ryan Phillippe is certain that the Thayer’s SUV is not the one they’re looking for.

Ryan decides that he going to take out some of his angst on them. He was upset and angered by a black person so he decides to take out that anger on two other black people whom he feels can’t or won’t retaliate.  His ego has taken a bruising from Shaniqua and he wants to feel more I control of his own destiny to satisfy his Id. When they pull-down the car they realize that Christine Thayer is committing a sexual act on her husband and this seems to fuel the fire for Ryan. He gets them both out of the car and after heated exchanges between Christine and Ryan, and Christine and her husband. Ryan is able finally get the control he is seeking  by belittling and shaming them, he asserts dominance of them and to prove it he gropes Christine in front of her husband and makes him ask that they be let go with just a warning. This humiliates both Cameron and Christine who is especially incensed because of the criminal way she’s being handled by Ryan,

Is Ryan a racist? At least on the surface it certainly appears that he is.  But he’s also a person with a lot of serious stress in his life.  The life of a street cop is stressful by its very nature, in most cases when they’re responding to a call they’re never sure exactly what they’re getting into. A Traffic stop can suddenly become a shooting or a high speed chase, a domestic can become a murder or a hostage situation and a suspicious person or vehicle can run the gambit from average honest citizen or delivery person to a thief or worse.  He’s a man trapped in a pressure cooker and he can’t find an appropriate release valve.  Under these types of pressure it’s not surprising that an officer might act out inappropriately, in an attempting to regain a sense of being back in control of his life, career, and relationships.  It is also these kinds of stresses that give police officers high rates of suicide, divorce, and other relationship issues both personal and professional.  According to the website, Badge of Life and their 2008 study of suicides among police offices, made the following determinations:

Estimated Suicide Rates for 2010:

General public          11/100,000

  Police:                     17/100,000  

Army                        20/100,000

Add into the mix the problems at home and he’s a man whom racist or not is ready for a meltdown.  In fact if his department knew of the problems he was having, they probably would have offered him desk time and counseling and shifted him off the streets.  But that didn’t happen. If fact when his partner tries to bring this up to their lieutenant, who is himself a black man he doesn’t want to hear it. If fact he spells it out for Hanson that he has no intention on following up on his allegations about Ryan because it would or could hurt his (the Lieutenant’s) career.

To further cover for Ryan the lieutenant transfers Hanson to his own squad under the claim that Hanson has bad flatulence and needs to ride alone.  However, before Hanson leaves on his first solo patrol. He and Ryan have one last conversation, during which Ryan tells him in essence that the job will change him, that it has an effect on everyone and that the person he is now won’t be the same person in a few years. This conversation demonstrates that this is a turning point for Ryan.

As the movie progresses it’s revealed that Ryan knows his own short-comings he reveals this to Shaniqua when he goes in person to try and talk to her he does this the day after his encounter with the Thayers. We see him shift from running on Ego & Id and allowing his Super Ego to start bringing him back into balance. He admits his own shortcomings to her and pleads with her help his father regardless of what she thinks of him.  He points out how his father who owned a cleaning service employed African-Americans, paid them fair wages and gave them benefits and how he lost it all when the city council required that all contract be given to minority run businesses. Shaniqua’s response to him after his passionate attempt at contrition was; If it was your father who the one sitting here and telling me all this, I would have signed off on this already.  With her own Ego now firmly in the driver’s seat, she’s telling him in essence that as long as he’s involved with his father and the insurance company he’ll find no assistance from her.  In fact she calls security to have him escorted from the building.

This should have pushed him over the edge, especially if he truly thought she only had her job to fill some quota for minority hires. But it doesn’t, it might even be the point where he starts making the connection between his actions and how they affect everyone around him.

It’s shortly after this encounter with Shaniqua that he and his new partner encounter the multi-car crash that is seen in the beginning of the movie.  He spots a black navigator upside down and leaking gas, gas that’s heading for a burning vehicle.

Without considering who the navigator might belong to, he sprints towards it knowing that if he doesn’t get there and help get the driver out that the person could be burned to death if and when the gas catches fire. It isn’t until he’s inside the vehicle that he realizes who the driver is. It’s Christine Thayer the woman he inappropriately touched the night before.

When she sees it’s him that came to help she initially rejects and resists his assistance madly fighting him off as if she afraid he’ll start up again from the night before.  At this point had he truly been a racist he could have backed off and let her die. After all what did she really mean to him. Dead people don’t file complaints.

He doesn’t though; he keeps trying to explain to her the seriousness of the situation and continues to request to assist her. Even after his partner and another person pull him from the SUV he goes back into the SUV and finally gets her to understand and to allow him to help.  In the end he saves her life.  An act that although in itself does not allow him to atone for his previous actions, it might have served as an early catalysis in allowing Christine to perhaps begin her healing process.

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  Those words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. said this as part of his I have a dream speech.  Is still a great goal for all of us after all as it said in the Tao Te Ching; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If Ryan is truly a racist or not that would be for you the reader to decide. He like many of the other characters in the movie becomes a different person by the end then he was when the film started. Does that absolve him of his past sins? That would be the decision of the people that he sinned against.

We have all at times had racist thoughts some of us have made racial statements, and a few may have even acted upon those unfortunate urges.  As people, our wants, needs and desires sometimes over-ride our common sense. It is our besetting sin.  But if we all remember to judge each other by the content of our character, to set aside the stupid, inappropriate comments made during times when we’re not at our best.  We may find that that step is as important to the eradication of this problem as the efforts made to confront it head on.

One last thought from Martin Luther King Jr; Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  In many ways we are moving forward towards what will hopefully one day manifest itself as an enlightened society.  It can be honestly said that we’ve come a long way, in that there is no doubt about it, but there is still a ways to go.

It can also be said that knowledge is power and that the awareness of the things happening around give us the opportunity to set the example for those around us.  To guide others away from misguided beliefs towards a new understanding of the world around them. In the end making this world a better place for all of us to live and prosper in.


“Martin Luther King Jr..” XploreInc, 2012. 14 March. 2012.

“Racism” The New Oxford American Dictionary.2nd ed. 2005. Print

Crash (2004).Dir. Paul Haggis.Perf. Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle,

Thandie Newton, Brandon Frasier,.Lions Gate, 2004. Film

“Suicide Study 2008”  N.P. n.d. Web 29 March 2012


                                “Tao Te Ching” Lao Tzu. Robert Friedler , N.p. N.d. 29 March 2012


About MartyW47

Attending Triton College. Studying Emergency Services Management & Criminal Justice. Currently employed @ MPPD & Aflac. After 30 years out of school I'm back in College and having a Blast!
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