Funding for public early childhood programs is tight around New Mexico, and it’s disproportionately students of color who miss out. Allen Sanchez of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops sparked debate last week when he told an Associated Press reporter that systemic racism is a factor in why legislation that could have fixed the problem didn’t get a fair shake.
Lawmakers and other opponents of the plan say that’s a stretch. KUNM spoke to Sanchez about why he was talking about racism after the session this year.
SANCHEZ: That’s always an issue in the Legislature every year, because we inherit structural racism. It doesn’t mean we’re talking about individuals who are bringing their attitudes. It’s about the structural racism where we consider the status quo to be OK.
And then from our perspective, Pope Francis is calling us to address poverty through the lenses of the Gospel. And so to quote the Holy Father, poverty in the world is a scandal, in a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone.
So, acting on that, we have to look at where our structures came from.
KUNM: And having that conversation around structural racism and colonization and status quo is often now conflated with liberalism. The Conference of Catholic Bishops is a nonpartisan entity, right?
SANCHEZ: Oh yeah. I mean it’s very interesting. It’s non-partisan, and the church chooses not to be in the political process. That’s a process of elevating candidates. But we have not just the right, but we believe that we have an obligation to enter the public square in the conversation about the common good. We’re only there to propose. We don’t come to impose. And we don’t do the introduction of legislation. The legislators do. But we’re going to hold them accountable too, if we think that, Hey, you’re missing a point here.
So, you could even have a Hispanic who’s a minority overseeing an organization that, not by their choice, has structural or institutional racism built into how it functions.
KUNM: And you’re making a point of saying you’re not accusing any individual person of being racist or making a racist decision, you’re talking about something structural. You know, we saw some backlash. Do you think people are understanding that distinction that you’re making?
SANCHEZ: If you don’t talk about it, you never do it. You put the word “racism” out there, and you’ve got everybody’s attention. And why, when we bring out “36.2 percent of children in poverty” doesn’t bring that same level of attention. That’s part of all of us and how our vision has become blurred or we’ve become numb to the situation that we live in. So we’re not calling any individual senator a racist.
No. Matter of fact, I think they’re all very fine people who have to struggle. But when they’re using their conscience—now conscience is something that’s formed, you’re not born with a conscience, it’s the education, and it’s the experience—we all are called on to reflect. OK, my experience so far, for some people they’re probably saying, the status quo is OK. And we’re challenging that.
KUNM: How does systemic racism in the way that we fund early childhood education create inequity for students of color in New Mexico?
SANCHEZ: So we know that eight out of 10 children in New Mexico are children of color. And they’re the ones for the most part that are in poverty. Now the science tells us that learning begins at birth. And the archaic distribution formula—which we’ve inherited that distribution—has to catch up with the science. But if you don’t like the idea of the fund, bring another one that will generate $140 million to $150 million.
KUNM: So opponents are saying that the decision is not about structural racism. It’s about making sure that fund continues to provide for students well into the future. Do you share that concern?
SANCHEZ: We know from our economic analysis—and the Legislative Finance [Committee] and the analyst that’s written on it—that the fund won’t be depleted. It’ll grow at a slower rate. So we can do both. We can protect the children, and we can protect the fund. But this is the challenge. You mentioned: That’s not a racism issue. That is. My idea that the fund must be protected at the cost of the children not receiving services, that may be the structural racism that we’ve accepted, that we’ve accepted as individuals. And we’re challenging that and that’s difficult. People don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to talk about, say, that “maybe some of my decisions I’ve inherited from an experience of years and years or decades, even generations, to be OK.”