Steroetyping-Who's Eating Whose Crackers?

Copyright 2003 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy S. Apodaca

Keynote Address At Black Programs-Sponsored
Martin Luther King Breakfast
Corbett Center, NMSU, January 14, 2000

    I am indeed privileged to have been asked to participate in this event honoring a great American, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

    As I near my final years on the appellate bench, I find a bit of irony in the fact that I was asked to be the guest speaker at this breakfast. I say that because in January of 1987, 13 years ago, the first month of my tenure on the Court of Appeals, I spoke at a similar event honoring Reverend King at the Albuquerque Convention Center. The theme on that occasion was “The Youth of Today Are Our Future of Tomorrow.” I consider that theme appropriate for this occasion, in light of the students of this fine university we are honoring. It is fitting that I share with you my own perception of the legacies left to us by Reverend King—what he meant to me.

    I can’t pay any better tribute to Martin Luther King than what has already been done by others before me, probably more eloquently. The mere fact that he is only one of a handful for which a special holiday has been set aside, is proof enough that his legacies are indeed worthy of being honored. Only in that way, can we be reminded that it is possible to overcome inequities and injustice in this great country of ours. Mr. King truly believed yesterday, as I do today, that the justice in a society is measured not by how it treats its best citizen, but by how it treats its worst. The man we pay homage to today lived his short life with a definite awareness of what the great philosopher, Santayana, once said: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

    There is a saying in Spanish I once heard while attending law school in Washington, D.C. in the early 60s, shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated. That saying, I think, applies to the memory of Mr. King. Nadie sabe lo que tiene, hasta quando lo ha perdido. Roughly translated, that means: No one realizes what he has until he has lost it.

    I have often wondered how Reverend King would view our country and world today if he were to appear suddenly before us some 30-plus years after his death. Would he praise God in jubilation for the advances we’ve made respecting the dignity of the human race? Or would he hide his face in shame upon witnessing what indignities and inequities still prevail? What do you think? I myself think he would do both. We have taken big steps to improve the quality of life in our world for which he would be jubilant. Yet, he would be saddened, I think, that despite these improvements, we still have a long way to go in how some of us are treated by others. You know it. I know it. And by now, everyone else should know it.

    Having said something about the man, let me address greatness in general. Great people do not wake up every morning reminding themselves of their laurels. Instead, they are much like you and I are—proceeding throughout the day, often stumbling through confusing times, each day learning more of life and of those around us.

    Nevertheless, we often fall into a way of thinking that leads us to take greatness for granted. We see or hear of a great ballplayer, for example, assuming that particular person was somewhat magically gifted with talents and the way was easy for him or her—it was a snap, we may assume. We fail to realize that sometimes those great athletes overcame overwhelming odds. Often, greatness goes unheralded—unnoticed. Recognition for greatness is not only fleeting but can prove to be elusive as well. The great Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, for example, whose works are today worth millions of dollars, was not recognized by his contemporaries. Art historians tell us that he sold only one of his many paintings during his lifetime. And that, it is believed by some, was secretly purchased by the artist’s brother, who apparently wanted to bolster his brother’s sagging morale.

    Let us, however, not mistake greatness or public recognition with a successful life. I submit to you that the most meaningful measure of success is the kind of success that has absolutely nothing to do with money or accumulation of property in determining the worth of an individual. I have known many materially poor who are rich spiritually.

    We must learn not to make the mistake of judging our fellow beings by taking one episode in their lives and using it either to crucify or to praise. We must accept the whole person—the bad with the good and the weakness with the strength. I recall reading a true account involving a U.S. Senator long ago. It seems that while campaigning in a small town, he came across an angry constituent who told him he was not going to vote for him. It seems he disagreed with the senator on a particular bill he had voted on. The senator asked the man whether he was a hunter, to which the man replied that he was. He then asked the man if he had ever hunted with a rifle that he had always trusted and on seeing his game, had aimed, and the weapon misfired. The man admitted that had happened to him. The senator asked whether he had thrown away the rifle he had trusted for so many years, or whether he had given it another chance. The man answered he had indeed given it another chance. Well then, the senator said, and so I wish that you do with me.

    Each of us develop our own perception of events taking place around us and assign different priorities to them. An old-time comedian-actor, W.C. Fields, once said while inebriated—“And there we were, stranded without any provisions—all we had was food and water!”

    Several years ago, I spoke at the annual dinner of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association. The subject of my talk dealt with a common habit in today’s world—stereotyping. I claimed then and I claim now that the habit is so common that at times we aren’t even aware we’re doing it.

    The question I posed then and pose to you today is whether we, as human beings, guided by our upbringing, our habits, biases, and our own special belief system, sometimes paint people with too broad a brush. Do we compartmentalize persons of different races, religions, or ethnic groups as being alike, simply because they may have certain common traits?

    I submit to you that all of us 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.

    We must all strive to admit that susceptibility. Instead of obscuring the truth around us with a wide paint brush, we should 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 shown in a story told by Alexander Sanders, a former chief judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals. I was captivated by the message of his story, which I would like to relate to you as a parable of my remarks today.

    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. 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 little mall. They have a drugstore there with an old-fashioned soda fountain.

    “Out in front of the drugstore, there were twelve of 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.

    “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 had I 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 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.

    “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-Cola, 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 that?

    “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, then 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 for 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. Whites see themselves living in an America where blacks 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 cost millions of dollars. The looting by whites 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 understand the anger of black people. Black people can’t understand 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. They 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 may 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, an African American or Chicano may see the same facts differently than someone of a different ethnic background.     “The way I see it,” I continued, “the message of your story about the crackers is actually reinforced by the person doing the telling. 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 conveyed. 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.’”

    One final story. Several years ago, I had a law clerk who was a native of Sacramento, California. Before he began clerking for me, he had never been to New Mexico and so had never been exposed to the culture of a small New Mexico town. Soon after his arrival here, though, he went out of his way to learn more about the place he was living in. He loved to run and bike, and so he took advantage of our warm climate and open countryside in the Las Cruces area. When indoors, he spent his time doing a lot of reading. One of the books I recommended to him 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 as the story progressed. 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, he explained to me, 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 am conveying to you today, is similar to the one Harper Lee professed in her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. In one part of the book, 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.

    This morning, I have given you only one perspective of the legacies of the Reverend Martin Luther King—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 again, Mike, for asking me to be with you on this special occasion. God bless all of you.