As a youngster, I lived in a neighborhood of low income housing in Mt. Vernon, New York, predominantly occupied by black families. In my elementary and junior high schools, there was a sizeable population of black students, and I was friendly with some of them. There was Dickie Fisher, Joyce Jones, Wendell Tyree, Linwood Lee, and Quentin Pair. Their names fascinated me and gave expression to the unique personalities of each one of them.
I was not especially close with any black student, but we were cordial with one another. My parents never made any disparaging remarks about people of color so I did not have any negative baggage when I interacted with these students.
In ninth grade, however, my experience was different. I attended a boarding school in New York City located at the edge of Harlem at the corner of Riverside Drive and 145th Street. Late one night after attending a jazz concert with a friend, three black students accosted us as we walked back to school. One was on roller skates and he wanted our money or else he would beat us up. He waved his fist in my face and on his hand was a big ring, which he threatened would land on my face.
My friend Max suddenly kicked the boy and yelled out “Herbie, run,” and that is exactly what I did. I ran faster than I ever had before in my life and did not stop until we were several blocks away and felt safe. I did not change my view of blacks because of this traumatic incident, but the event gave me another perspective on black-white relations.
Black or White is about black and white relations, but from a totally unfamiliar perspective. It is the story of a grandfather, Elliot Anderson, who is suddenly left to care for his beloved multi-racial granddaughter, 7-year old Eloise, after his wife dies in a car crash. The granddaughter’s father is black; the mother, Elliot’s deceased daughter, is white.
As long as Elliot’s wife was living, Eloise’s black grandmother, Rowena, was okay with Eloise living with her white grandparents. Now that Elliot is a widower and Eloise no longer has a motherly presence at home, Rowena wants Eloise to live with her, especially since Elliot has a serious drinking problem.
Elliot does not want to relinquish custody because he knows Rowena has another agenda: she wants Eloise to have a relationship with her drug-addicted father, Reggie, her son. Elliot holds Reggie responsible for the death of his daughter, who became pregnant by Reggie, her 23-year old boyfriend, and died in childbirth at age 17.
The custody battle between Rowena and Elliot is depicted in a nuanced way. Both sides love Eloise and want the best for Eloise, but they define the “best” in different ways. The issues of race and prejudice are the subtext of the film, but they do not figure into the ultimate outcome of the case. What matters is who the principals are and what is in Eloise’s best interest, not the color of anyone’s skin.
Jewish sources in the Bible and Talmud do not say much about the relationship between blacks and whites in society, but there is much said about stereotyping or to use the more contemporary term “profiling.” For example, the Talmud considers the consequences of stereotyping not based on skin color but based on one’s past behavior.
There is an unusual story in the Talmud, which relates obliquely to profiling. Rabbi Elazar, the son of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon, met a man whose job it was to catch thieves. He asked him how he was able to identify the criminal. He told him the following: “Go into an inn in the late morning. If you see a person nodding off with a cup of wine in his hands, ask after him. If he is a Torah scholar, he is nodding off because he got up early to learn. If he is a workman, it’s because he rose early to work. If he works at night, he was working late. Otherwise, he is a thief, and arrest him.” The commentators point out that in general we do not rely on such circumstantial evidence, but in times of great lawlessness, we can sometimes resort to this kind of profiling.
Black or White raises the issue of black-white relations and implicitly suggests that profiling may have some legitimacy. After all, Reggie, Eloise’s father, is a convicted felon and still involved with drugs. It is reasonable to assume that contact with him may not be in Eloise’s best interest even though he is her father.
In the final analysis, however, profiling is not enough to make a definitive judgment about a person. For that one needs an appreciation of the whole man, not just one snapshot in time.