A father forced by the public school system to categorize his multiracial children by “primary race” explores the silliness of racial identity. [ How Jack Became Black credits: Dir: Eli Steele/ 96 min/ Documentary/ Equality & Law, Individualism/ 2018]
The centuries-old concept of race (or tribe, or caste, etc.) was always intended, from the outset, to divide people. Few today would consider such arbitrary divisions as morally desirable or intellectually defensible. Indeed, the long civil rights battle dating from radical Anglo-American abolitionists of the early 1800s to the civil rights heroes of the 1950s was to make race irrelevant, to achieve the dream of erasing such divisions. Why then, in this scientific era, in this age of progress, has the determination of individual race not only continued but suddenly taken on greater significance?
As we learn in the excellent documentary How Jack Became Black, the reason is simply that race is about power, and those who want power have breathed new life into old racial divisions for their own purposes.
Narrated, written, and directed by filmmaker Eli Steele, he tells his own story and that of his two children, relating their experience as multiracial people in a world increasingly obsessed with racial categorization. Part Jewish, part Black, part Native American, part Latin, the Steele family does not fit conveniently into one racial category. Who cares, you might say? Well, for one, the Los Angeles Unified School District. When Eli tried to register his son Jack for elementary school, he was told he had to choose a racial category for Jack or the child would not be allowed to attend. This event is the spark that launched this film, and its narrative is largely framed around Eli’s quest through the school’s bureaucracy to determine why he was being forced to make that choice.
In the course of covering this main thread, the film also delves into the backstory of what is driving the renewed obsession with race: institutionalized identity politics. Race has become codified – ironically along the same five racial categories of the nineteenth century – and professionalized, with training, conferences, and well-paid jobs for race professionals. In academic institutions, administrators are compensated and promoted based on their success or failure in recruiting students in preferred races. Progressive private companies hire diversity experts to recruit and retain employees of the right racial mix. And government hires diversity professionals to pursue its own racial agenda. The Left has adopted racial equality of outcome as its raison d’être, and entrenched that goal into institutions, but to achieve that end, of course, people must first be divided along racial lines.
It is a great irony that the long battle to judge individuals “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is now being reversed by left-wing idealogues of today, whose agenda of power through racial politics cannot square with a truly multiracial society.
You might think all this would be depressing, but How Jack Became Black is actually somewhat optimistic, not because there is much hope of convincing race-obsessed intellectuals and professionals that they are morally wrong, but because racial intermarriage is making racial divisions inescapably more awkward and complicated. By 2050, one in five Americans will be multiracial, and it’s only going up from there.
All this is told first-hand, from the perspective of Eli Steele, one of the round pegs that doesn’t fit into the square holes that the Left insists he choose from. His storytelling has the authenticity of personal experience and accordingly connects with the audience more effectively than would an outside observer’s view; you feel for Eli and his kids, and for other multiracial people forced into categories that define them. Eli says at the end that he hopes one day people will ask him not “what are you” but “who are you.” The sympathetic and powerful case he makes in this film will nudge the needle in that worthy direction for anyone watching it.
“How Jack Became Black is a fascinating (and disturbing) exploration of the contemporary subordination of the individual to careerist bureaucracies and anti-humanist orthodoxies.”
“Both intellectually stimulating and emotionally touching.”
–Anthem Film Festival
“There is a growing group in this country who feel that they cannot be simply placed into one racial category. Yet, what if that is exactly what society is trying to make them do? This is a battle we see taking place in the new documentary How Jack Became Black.”
–The Black Geeks
How to See It
“‘In third grade, my teacher asked all the black kids to stand up. I stood up. She asked all the Asian kids to stand up. I sat down. She asked all the white kids to stand up. I stood up again. Got a couple of laughs and looks. I just remember going home and telling my parents about that,’ Jaskolski said. Jaskolski’s dad, Carl remembers that day too.”