America just celebrated a monumental Juneteenth. The holiday was met with a tremendous outpouring from the Black community to continue having critical discussions about race in light of the killing of George Floyd and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Now, we embark on Independence Day questioning the meaning of freedom and equality for Black people and people of color. For New Mexico and our history, this conversation is personal.
Before the 1619 arrival of slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, there already was a settlement of Spanish colonizers in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And one of the earliest African slave occupants of North America, known as Estevan from Morocco, roamed the southwest with Cabeza de Vaca before leading a party to Zuni Pueblo.
Colonialism implemented a caste system which prioritized European ancestry as superior. Eventually, the territory, given over to Mexico and then the United States, became known as the “Tri-Cultural State,” which included white Europeans, Native Americans and Latinos. Black New Mexicans were completely left out of this social consideration, a prejudicial omission which still exists to this day. In prior government administrations, the Black population here has been labeled (too) “statistically insignificant” to report. Today, there still exist huge gaps of missing data tracking the lived experience of Black people here.
African American students disproportionately underperform in math, English, and science proficiency. In a monumental 2018 lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. New Mexico, students representing the economically-disadvantaged, disabled, Native Americans and English language learners were cited to be “at-risk” and underserved. Through an intersectional lens, African American students in public education are also disproportionately represented to be economically disadvantaged and living with disabilities. The implications of the case give this state an opportunity to examine the reality of African American students by gathering, studying, and highlighting data to further remedy the lawsuit.
Other data that is not collected on African Americans in New Mexico include crucial information from the criminal justice system. Little-to-no data is collected on African Americans involved in police encounters, pending sentencing, or on incarceration percentages.
In this crucial coming election, African Americans are projected to have a decreased voter turnout according to the Center for American Progress. This is largely due to barriers such as registration access and ballot qualifications. This should be a cause for alarm for states like New Mexico which has a growing Black population, yet one politically fragile due to a failure of being fairly represented or counted in civic and other important matters. By contrast, the state monitors and maintains data for its Native American voter turnout.
Further, Black representation at the highest levels of state government is largely absent. The New Mexico Office of African American Affairs has an important and historical station in the government, but needs to elevated to a cabinet-level department.
It’s imperative that the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham take decisive action to bring the OAAA and other African American civic bodies fully to the table. Having true cabinet-level status would expand the OAAA’s budget, assure on-going advisement directly to the governor, and broaden the services it provides.
As a community organizer, I have learned that if you “do not have a seat at the table, you are on the menu!” Collecting data and elevating Black leadership across government bodies at the state and local levels will address systemic racism and structural violence against Black New Mexicans. These changes will show us in the Black community that we matter and will allow policymakers to see the realities Black people face in New Mexico. These inclusions will also help New Mexican policymakers see us.
Devont’e Kurt Watson is an Albuquerque community activist and organizer aligned with Black Lives Matter.