21st Century Films

The Root Cause of Racial Prejudice: Crash (2004)

Negative experiences with individual members of a racial group can cause a person to form a negative attitude towards every member of that group.

crashRacial prejudice is “an adverse or hostile attitude toward a group or its individual members.”1 In Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004), Detective Ryan (Matt Dillan), a white police officer, is prejudiced against blacks. Ryan’s actions reveal the root cause of racial prejudice: Negative experiences with individual members of a racial group can cause a person to form a negative attitude towards every member of that group.

Ryan’s racial prejudice is seen when he phones Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine), the black woman at the health clinic, and she denies his request to see a different doctor. Ryan rudely replies, “big f—king surprise that is.” He guesses her race by her name, and treats her with contempt. After the phone call, he sexually assaults a black woman, Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton), while searching her body for concealed weapons. Ryan’s actions are dark and disturbing. He is a bad cop because of his racial prejudice.

Ryan’s prejudice against blacks is rooted in events from his past. His father ran a janitorial business, but the city, practicing affirmative action, gave its janitorial contracts to minority-owned companies, and Ryan’s father lost not only his contract, but also “his business, his home, and his wife.” Angry at how the government destroyed his father’s life, Ryan became racially prejudiced against black people. His racial prejudice is also the result of working 17 years as a police officer. He tells Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), “Wait till you’ve been on the job a few more years. You think you know who you are? You have no idea.” Ryan’s negative experiences with black criminals has hardened his heart, increasing his racial prejudice toward all black people, even those who are not criminals.

Ryan is not blind to his racial prejudice. When he meets with Shaniqua, he apologizes for his rude behavior. Shaniqua, however, is unforgiving. After he explains his father’s health condition, the smirk on her face shows that she feels no empathy for him. Ryan’s suggestion that she got her job over “five or six more qualified white men” naturally enrages her, and seeing her reaction, he admits that he is a “prick,” and humbly asks her to “do this small thing for a man who lost everything.” Ryan’s request falls on deaf ears, showing how difficult it is for people to forgive racial prejudice.

Shaniqua uses her position to punish Ryan for his racial prejudice. She tells him, “Your father sounds like a good man. And if he’d come in here today, I probably would’ve approved this request. But he didn’t come in. You did.” The hypocrisy of her actions is revealed in the final scene when she is rear-ended in traffic. After three Asians get out of their vehicle, she yells at them with contempt: “You people … Don’t you talk to me unless you speak American!” Shaniqua, after her mistreatment by Ryan, is now guilty of racial prejudice herself.

Racial prejudice is an irrational response to negative experiences with individual members of a racial group. No one should be treated with hostility because of the actions of other members of their race. Ryan’s negative feelings toward black people resulted in a loss of his own humanity. Blinded by prejudice, he sexually assaulted Christine. However, in the climax of the film, he goes beyond the call of duty and saves her life. This attempt to make right his wrong—by risking his own life—turns him into a heroic figure. Ryan cannot erase the wrong he has done, but in overcoming his racial prejudice, he becomes a good cop.


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Prejudice,” accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/474816/prejudice


  1. Matt Dillon deserved his first Oscar nomination for the role of a policeman who most surprisingly finds a great redemption. I always admire characters like that. Certainly for the human power to overcome severe prejudice. Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 2 people

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