The voices of the lawmakers were filled with emotion as they recounted their personal histories — sometimes gripping reflections of race, culture and ethnic traditions.
One spoke of the stripping of Native language and cultural traditions from her family members during the era of boarding schools and how she is still grappling to come to terms with that history.
Another, who is Hispanic, said his parents never graduated from elementary school but bought themselves opportunity through hard work and perseverance. “They did not have equity,” he said.
And a third, Black state Sen. Harold Pope Jr. of Albuquerque, said he was “ashamed” the discussion — one centering on whether the academic framework known as critical race theory is being taught in New Mexico’s public schools — was even taking place.
“I know it’s a political season. I know people run for office. I know this is a national trend,” Pope said Thursday during a Legislative Education Study Committee discussion on new social studies standards. “But we are here to do what we can for the kids of New Mexico. And, in a lot of ways, we’re not having that discussion right now. We’re just not.”
The discussion hinged on controversial new social studies standards in the state’s public schools, scheduled to be implemented in the 2023-24 school year. The standards, which had not been updated in more than a decade, were approved by the state Public Education Department after heated discussions earlier this year.
But the elephant in the room was the question of whether critical race theory falls within those standards. The concept is a way of examining whether public policies and laws have systematically embedded racial thinking and action in legal, educational and civic structures.
It has become a political wedge issue in an election year, nationally and in New Mexico. Opponents contend it can lead people to believe one race is inherently racist or oppressive and make people of color believe their status is dependent upon the actions of people in the past.
Advocates argue critical race theory is merely a way to understand how a society can become systemically racist through legal and judicial policies and procedures. It also can help children understand and respect one another, regardless of their racial, ethnic and cultural background, they say.
Many social studies teachers last year said a planned overhaul of the state’s social studies standards should allow for teachers to handle controversial subjects such as race and social justice in a well-rounded, historically accurate manner.
Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary for teaching and learning for the state Public Education Department, said the new standards push students to a level of inquiry that will lead them to question how the historical events of years past — such as the passage of racist Jim Crow laws — affect them and those around them today.
“History is the story of us,” she told committee members.
But Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington and an outspoken opponent of critical race theory — who recalled his Hispanic parents running five businesses and achieving success despite a lack of formal education — said he has concerns that “concepts of a political ideology” will be taught as history.
“If you say things are stacked against you because of things that happened years and years ago that nobody in the room had anything to do with, based on identity, ethnicity, race … I think it sets children up for feelings of they are not ever going to be able to achieve,” he said.
Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, D-Albuquerque, countered and said her grandparents and father — who were Native Americans — were forced to assimilate to a culture other than their own.
She said if the new standards mean “talking about the violence associated with that history, if it means talking about land, our lands being stolen and if it means talking about why my father and grandfather were stripped and robbed of their language and culture, then that’s what it has to be.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Dow, a House member from Truth or Consequences, questioned whether children in elementary school could possibly examine and understand the questions posed in the standards — particularly since the conversation is “difficult for adults.”
After listening to lawmakers reveal their own stories related to the issue, Dow — who unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a bill that would ban critical race theory teaching in schools during this year’s regular legislative session — called the discussion “a complicated conversation about what is objective and what is subjective. I am processing things, and I’ll be digesting things for a while.”
Last fall, when New Mexico announced it would update its social studies standards, many people protested the move during a demonstration at the Public Education Department building in downtown Santa Fe.
Some expressed concern critical race theory might become part of the new curriculum.
At that time, Public Education Department officials said they had no plans to incorporate it into the standards.
Warniment said after the hearing this is the first time since 2009 the state has updated or changed its social studies standards and that it is past time to recognize the many historical events and figures that have come into play during that period.
She said she thinks the issue is coming to a head now “because we have not been teaching it so students can make those critical connections between historical events and current events.”
Otherwise, she said, we will continue to “remain in a space where we continue to spin out.”