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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.