Fighting invisibility

Vernon Butler
December 20, 2013

From meetings at the state or local level to events of everyday life, many African-Americans say their experiences in New Mexico make them feel invisible and insignificant.

Sometimes African-Americans hear this message directly.

"It is disheartening. I have lived here my whole life," says Cortez Grey, a father of four and a recent college graduate with a degree in Information Systems Security. "I am more than significant - and very visible when driving," he adds with irony.

Out of a population of 2.08 million, according to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, New Mexico’s African-American population totals 2.5 percent. Albuquerque, one of the most populous cities in the state, has an African-American population of 3.3 percent.

With such a small percentage of population, African-American views and experiences of life in New Mexico in general, and Albuquerque in particular, run a complex gamut from pride to disgust and disillusionment.

Diana Dorn JonesDiana Dorn Jones, founder of the United South Broadway Corporation /Anti Racism Training Institute of the Southwest, which provides social and legal services to communities disadvantaged by fewer resources and opportunities, recently took a reporter to South Broadway and the neighborhood known as “The Kirk,” the city’s two historic black communities, to explain their respective histories.

“This is where my father settled in the early 1940s,” she recalls. Dorn Jones says economics help explain how the neighborhoods developed. “ was about access to employment opportunities," she says.

With access to the rail yards, and later the Kirkland Air Force Base, explains Dorn Jones, blacks migrated from South Broadway to the new homes in the Kirk.

“‘The Kirk' was our suburb," she says.

The city’s African-American population became more fragmented as home ownership increased and jobs became plentiful in the post-World War II era. As a result, many of the children of these workers left both city and state as they came of age, taking with them their degrees and, thus diluting the black community’s political power.

Reginald Eugene Johnson, a senior at the University of New Mexico, remembers his childhood move from the Kirk to the more desegregated community of Southeast Heights with a mixture of nostalgia and resentment.

Reginald Eugene Johnson“They (blacks) used to call it ‘the war zone’ when I was growing up,” he says. "What I remember about that time was how the kids looked at us and each other as (being) different. They looked through racial eyes.

“This was how they were raised and taught, really. They (neighbors) would learn words like nigger and coon. They learned the idea of being better than others based on racial and economic differences...instead of learning concepts of perspective, which is important for a child,” he says.                

“This was also how adults treated the new children of the neighborhood; especially the police . . . There was a lot of minority contacts with the police back then—a lot."

Although Johnson acknowledges improved race relations in the city and state during the past 40 years, he says improvement has happened only incrementally.

"Yes, things were better than they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but the ideology did not change, and has not changed yet,” he says. “How do we change as a community, so the process of being seen for who we are is accepted?"

"The fact is, the glass ceiling of tri-culturalism (the way the state describes its cultural makeup by considering its dominant populations to be Hispanic, whites and Native American) is still prevalent, even though vis-a-vis the new state messaging – New Mexico being a ‘multicultural state’ - they don't see us. They don't hear us. They just don’t recognize our humanity," Johnson says.

For many African-American flocking to the Land of Enchantment, Albuquerque can be less charming than the visitor brochure leads one to believe.

Dr. Bahati AnsariBahati Ansari, founder of the Racism Free Zone and SEED facilitator at Robert F. Kennedy Charter School, moved to New Mexico in 2006 from Eugene, Ore. She talks about the difficulty of Albuquerque’s black community seeing itself as such.

"How do we thrive as a people when we cannot see ourselves, when we have no place of our own, other than church?" she asks.
"When I got here, to New Mexico, having lived in Chicago, the East Coast and then the Pacific Northwest in Eugene, I found it difficult to figure out the who, what, where of Albuquerque,” Ansari recalls. “I was told there was an African-American community here. But that was gone by the time I arrived."

“The community was now dispersed throughout the city and its newer suburbs. So there is very little of that sense of community that place of legacy and tradition,” she says.

“That place is necessary for vibrancy and richness in community,” she adds. “That richness and vibrancy is a key in the survival of our children, (of) keeping our cultural place in tact in New Mexico.”           

Michael Brown, founder of the Sankofa Institute, has been in Albuquerque for just less than six years. Moving from Los Angeles, he saw new opportunities, such as the chance to work for other blacks.

“We want to come to a community like South Broadway, not to just come in to fit in, but to come in and do some things,” he says.             

Michael BrownBrown and Ansari say that blacks have a voice in the present and future of New Mexico, whether “statistically relevant” or not. They say they will continue to fight being ignored.

“There is a belief that you cannot measure the African-American voice that we are ‘statistically insignificant,’” Brown says. “Though dispersed, and thus (practically) invisible, we have a voice. However, for many that voice is not measurable.”

“Coming from L.A., (where) being with groups of African-American men and women, its commonplace to have that voice. In Albuquerque and in other parts of New Mexico, the African-American voice is an anomaly," added Brown.

Ansari says she was dismayed during a recent conference when a presenter said the data on African-American in New Mexico was so “statistically insignificant,” she declined to include it.

“It is more like an abject dismissal of us as a people" she says.


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