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The politics of identity
A Q&A with writer and filmmaker Eli Steele
One of the best things about being at Substack is getting to have conversations with writers and thinkers whose work has influenced me. Eli Steele is one of them. I saw his film How Jack Became Black last summer at a festival hosted by the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, and thought about it for weeks afterwards. The documentary is about a Los Angeles public school trying to force Steele to check a racial box for his multiracial son Jack. But it’s also about the ways in which our society has become increasingly race-based, and why Steele wants no part of that. Here, he talks about racial thinking, and why it won’t get society where we want to go.
The film chronicles how racial thinking has shown up in your life and your family story, and how troubling you’ve found it. What was the tipping point — when did you know you had to make a documentary?
The tipping point was when they told me: You cannot enroll your son without checking the box. The California constitution basically guarantees free and public education to everybody. The school violated that. They basically said now race is more important than education. That’s when I realized that our society had shifted. … I made this film in 2014, 2015, before all of this woke stuff happened.
It’s certainly relevant to the current moment. In the film, you dive into the history of identity politics. Can you share your definition of that term?
Identity here means your race, your immutable characteristics; it doesn’t really mean who you are as a person. The politics is attached to those immutable characteristics. Which is why a lot of people find it suffocating.
The way it came about is interesting … What people don’t realize about the civil rights movement was that Blacks and like-minded white Americans were marching to remove the racial labels. Because to be Black in that time was to be punished. They wanted all Americans to be treated equal. They wanted to remove the racial marker, because they knew how poisonous it could be. Then there was a group of Americans who said, wait a minute, we can’t believe that we could come out of the civil rights era and the racism is gone. We need those racial labels to ensure that discrimination is not taking place.
It’s understandable. But it’s a tremendous power to give people. And the problem is that the people who took that power kind of betrayed that original impulse. It became more about racial engineering. It became a way to make up for the sins of the past through moving races around — rather than doing the hard work of helping people who have been oppressed.
Your son Jack is not only a descendent of slaves, but also of Holocaust survivors. What can we learn about racial thinking from looking back at history?
Racial thinking is a way to reduce people to certain boxes in order to execute whatever action you want. … The danger of racial thinking is that you are looking at the world through a racial lens. That’s a very reductive way of thinking. And that does not put you in good company.
This film really goes against the grain. Did you get flak?
Yes. I got called a white supremacist. [Laughs] The interesting thing is that it came from white liberals, not Black liberals.
How do we make sure that there’s equality of opportunity? How do we go about doing that?
I think it starts with ourselves. … I’ll give you an example. I’m in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Unified School District lowered the standards so that to graduate from high school all you need is a 1.0 GPA. So, basically: Show up in class, get participation, and that’s about it. The stunning thing is that nobody in L.A. cared. More are starting to care, but people still don’t speak up. But they will run out and donate millions of dollars to Black Lives Matter, and we still don’t know where the money went.
When George Floyd died, that was horrible and I won’t deny anybody their reaction — but when we graduate 20,000 kids per year in Los Angeles that have a 1.0 GPA we are setting off a time bomb for the future. Where are they going to work? Of course, there will be some people that figure it out and make a good life for themselves. But there will be a lot that don’t.
Thankfully, I think that what we are seeing now is more people stepping up to the plate. There are some local grassroots organizations that are saying, that’s enough. And you have pastor Cory Brooks in Chicago, who I have been covering for Rooftop Revelations, who is sick and tired of all the violence and the poverty, so he has been on the roof. It’s the 53rd day, in the freezing cold on the South Side of Chicago, to make a statement. This guy is trying to say that what we are doing is wrong.
There’s a guy in Georgia who is 23 years old who says the public school system has failed us. So he’s started his own academy.
My point is that people are stepping up, and we are in the beginning. That’s how movements start. … We are starting to see more courage from people. That’s what my father [Shelby Steele] always told people. They would ask him, what’s the solution? And he would say, courage. Step up, you know what’s right.
This interview has been edited and condensed.