Is Our Brush Too Broad?

Copyright 2003 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy S. Apodaca

    Chief Justice Frost, special guest Justice Baca, my fellow colleagues on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. I want to thank Mick Gutierrez and the Directors of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association for graciously permitting me to say a few words at this dinner. I am indeed honored to be among you this evening.

    If I were to be asked to choose a title for my remarks, I would entitle it—Is Our Brush Too Broad? By that, I am referring to a common habit in today’s world—stereotyping. I submit to you that the habit is so common that at times we are not even aware that we’re doing it.

    The question I pose to you tonight is whether we, as human beings, guided by our upbringing, our habits, biases, and our own special belief system unique to each of us, sometimes paint people with too broad a brush. Do we catagorize or compartmentalize people of different races, religions, or ethnic groups as being alike, simply because they may have certain common traits? Do we sometimes generalize too much and make assumptions about people—those we know and those we don’t know?

    I submit to you that we all have done it at one time or another. Not being perfect, we are inclined to carry preconceived notions about those around us that can cause us to falsely perceive them. Especially those who are different or whose ideas are foreign or alien to us. I don’t know whether psychologists would agree with me or not, but I have a theory. My theory is that all of us have a basic human instinct to rebel against anything foreign to us. We only differ in the degree that we do it.

    But, fortunately, where some of us distinguish ourselves from others, although we may be prone to use too wide a brush, is that we eventually realize that susceptibility. So instead of obscuring the truth around us with a wide paint brush, we strive to use one with a finer point—one that will allow us to refine our vision and see persons with greater definition—as they really are. By using a narrower brush, we can succeed in truly understanding the world around us. We would then make decisions based on truth and reality, not misconceptions and prejudices.

    This concept is vividly and precisely displayed in a story told by Alexander M. Sanders, former Chief Judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Alex is now President of the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

    Alex actually included three stories in his presentation, which he attempted to tie together at the end with a common theme. I’m not entirely certain that he succeeded in doing so. But I was especially captivated by the message of one story in particular, which I would like to relate to you as a parable of what my remarks tonight are about.

    Although I could paraphrase Alex Sanders’ story, I believe much would be lost in my rendition. And so I will tell it to you, with Alex’s blessing, exactly as it was told by him—but without his distinct Southern intonations. Try to imagine, however, that a South Carolinian is speaking. I’ll try reminding you of that by attempting a Southern drawl, poorly I suspect, from time to time. Here is that story.

    “The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville. When my daughter was in school, her mother and I often visited her there. On one such visit, a memorable thing happened.

    “In Charlottesville, they have turned Main Street into a very nice little mall. They have a drugstore there with an old-fashioned soda fountain. You can get milkshakes and sodas and all the things you used to be able to get before Revco . . . took over the world of drugstores.

    “Out in front of the drugstore, in the mall itself, there are these little round tables. You know the kind I mean. Little round tables about two feet in diameter, with two of those wire-backed chairs at each table. There are about twelve or fourteen of these little tables grouped around the front of the drugstore.

    “It was the middle of the afternoon, and I had some time on my hands. So, I went into the drugstore, bought a newspaper, a Pepsi-Cola and a package of peanut butter crackers. Then, I went outside and sat down at one of the little tables. All the others were vacant. I was the only one there. Have you got the picture?

    “No sooner that I had sat down and arranged myself, a man came out of the drugstore carrying a cup of coffee, and he sat down opposite me. He sat down at my table, although there were at least eleven other tables with no one sitting at them. Naturally, I thought it a little odd. The man was a black man, an African-American, as they say.

    “Anyway, here I was seated two feet from this man. I looked at him. He looked at me. Neither of us spoke. I ate a cracker, took a sip of Pepsi, I ate another cracker, and went back to reading my paper. Then he did it. He reached over, took a cracker and ate it. Now, what exactly is the proper response to this?

    “How big a deal should you make of a peanut butter cracker? On the other hand, should you ever allow yourself to be taken advantage of— intimidated? I glared at him. He glared back at me. I ate another cracker, never taking my eyes off him. He ate another cracker. Now what? There was one cracker left. Our eyes were locked. I was glaring at him, two feet away. He was glaring back at me, two feet away. Now what?

    “Then, without a word, without a gesture, without so much as a flicker of the eye, he looked away. He looked back, looked down and gently pushed the last cracker over to me. Needless to say, I ate it. He got up and hurried away, leaving me with my newspaper and my Pepsi-Cola.

    “I silently congratulated myself on not having been the first to blink, so to speak. And I was still congratulating myself a few minutes later when I picked up my newspaper, and there under it, I saw for the first time, unopened, untouched, my package of crackers. I had been eating his crackers.

    “What do you suppose the man thought? Undoubtedly, the same thing I thought, and the same thing you thought as you listened to the story. Probably, he is somewhere, as we speak, telling the same story. I never saw him again. I verily hope I never do.

    “It seems to me that the story of the African American and the crackers illustrates a profound misunderstanding that exists in the world. It is the matter that divides the Croatian and the Serb. It is the matter that divides the Russian and the Chechen. It is the matter that divides the Catholic and the Protestant in Northern Ireland. It is the matter that divides the Palestinian and the Jew. It is the matter of ‘who is eating whose crackers.’

    “In America, the question divides white people and black people. White people see themselves living in an America where black people feed off them through welfare subsidies and affirmative action programs. Black people, on the other hand, see an entirely different America. They see an America where they are still foreclosed from the American dream.

    “Following one of the verdicts in the Rodney King cases, we saw on television Blacks in Los Angeles looting everything in sight. Everything, that is, but Savings and Loans. White people had already looted those. The looting by Blacks has cost millions of dollars. The looting by white people has cost a half-trillion dollars.

    “Who is eating whose crackers?

    “Following the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, the division between the races was even more apparent—this time nationwide.

    “White people can’t imagine the anger of black people. Black people can’t imagine the resentment of white people.

    “Who is eating whose crackers?”

    End of story. I suggested to Alex Sanders that his story about the crackers carried a hidden message; one he probably wasn’t aware of. “What was that?” he asked me with obvious curiosity.

    “People from the South,” I explained, “especially natives with deep roots there, lose sight of the fact that people from other parts of the country may have certain preconceived ideas about Southerners. Unfortunately, people with no connection to Southern people hold certain misconceptions of what you’re like. Some of them tend to think of you as still living in the past, and images of past slavery and Ku Klux Klansmen riding in the night are still vividly imprinted in their minds. More recent images also come to mind: George Wallace in Alabama—Governor Faubus in Arkansas—”Mississippi Burning.” These people sometimes fail to realize that, with the years, many changes have come about—changes in people’s beliefs and thinking.”

    “The message in your story about the crackers,” I told Alex, “in a strong way emphasizes that people’s troubles often come about as a result of the different views or perspectives that they possess. It definitely is a question of ‘who is eating whose crackers?’ As your speech demonstrated, a Black or Chicano may see the same facts differently than someone of a different ethnic background. How differently? To know that, I submit we must strive, upon being told the observer of an event, to recognize and appreciate the perspective that person brings to perceiving or analyzing that event.

    “The way I see it,” I continued, “the message of your story about the crackers is actually reinforced by the person who was doing the telling. You see, the fact that it was you, a native Southerner, and not me, a Mexican American, or an African-American who told your story, strengthened the message you intended to convey. People from elsewhere, deep down in their souls, don’t really expect a person of your upbringing, a Southerner, to tell the story you told with such conviction and genuine sincerity. You, after all, have not escaped the stereotyping. Although bigotry is everywhere, some of us seem to think it is especially entrenched in the South, which I now admit is not necessarily the case.” After all, ‘some of my best friends are Southerners.’”

    When I finished expounding my theory, Alex said, “I never thought of it in that way, but I believe you’re absolutely right. I thank you for pointing it out to me.”

    One final story. My present law clerk, Mike Farrell, is a native of Sacramento, California. Before he began clerking for me, he had never been to New Mexico and had certainly never been exposed to the culture of a small New Mexico town. Since his arrival here, though, Mike has gone out of his way to learn more about the place he now lives in. He loves to run and bike, and so he has taken advantage of our warm climate and open countryside in the Las Cruces area. He spends his time, when indoors, doing a lot of reading. One of the books I recommended that he read was John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War. I thought it would convey to him some of the flavor of the native New Mexican—the common folk.

    He read the novel and enjoyed it immensely. Although he found the book vastly entertaining, he explained that what he enjoyed most was how his perception of the characters developed. In the beginning of the book he found the stories of the simple, uneducated townspeople amusing, but by the end of the book he had gained an insight into the community and a profound respect for the natives’ integrity, loyalty, camaraderie, and culture. The journey through the novel, Mike explained, enabled him to see things from an entirely different perspective—a perspective in which successes in life are measured by a different measuring stick than that used by most people in the world today.

    This message in The Milagro Beanfield War, and the one I try to convey tonight, is similar to the one Harper Lee professed in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch explained to his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or, as Alex Sanders would say, until we all realize that perhaps the crackers we have been eating are not our own.

    Tonight I have given you only one perspective—my own. There are, of course, other points of view. I hope I myself have not been guilty of painting with too broad a brush.

    Thank you for asking me to be with you tonight. God bless you.