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Does new Arizona law teach racism to kids?

Opinion: By Wendy Lee Walsh, Ph.D.

While lawmakers and partisan voters argue about the constitutionality of the new Arizona immigration law, few people are talking about one of the biggest dangers: Teaching racism to kids.

Arizona lawmakers, in an attempt to abate their immigration crisis, passed a bill that allows law enforcement officers to ask about a person's immigration status if they have reason to suspect the person is in the country illegally. Critics like myself fear this will lead to inquiries based solely on race.

And now a new generation of American children, white, black and brown will bear witness to this institutionalized racism.

We all know that children are very impressionable. Young brains are like little sponges soaking up messages about their culture and environment. Hard beliefs can be formed if young people witness families of Latino heritage being openly and legally harassed by authorities.

The fact that 60 percent of the adults in their state condone this kind of racial profiling sends a message to kids that judging people by the color of their skin is OK. This can really damage children.

And what about American children of Latino ethnicity? The most dangerous aspect of a racist culture isn't any overt act of discrimination. Instead, it is a personal sense of feeling "less than" created in early life through media messages and the like. Are we teaching some American children that they are less valuable? Will a new generation of Latino-American children grow up to believe they are anything less than valuable, powerful and capable of reaching for the stars?

So how can parents all over America explain this law to children and create positive messages to counter the effects of racist programming?

Tackle the topic before the media and schoolyard -- grab the microphone.
Whether you support the law or not, it is important that you help your children make sense of it. Use this civics lesson to educate your children on immigration law, the dilemma over how to better enforce those laws and the tragedy that some illegal aliens have made it difficult for Americans who have lived here for many generations.

Express empathy for legal American families who may be detained.
Should you or your child ever witness a person of color being detained, provide a verbal description of the challenge for law enforcement. You might say something like, "Please remember kids, that man could be a law-abiding father on his way home from work." Don't let the picture of a brown person surrounded by police officers in uniform be left alone to engrain on your child's mind.

Provide positive Latino role models
Racist ideas are formed by taking in positive and negative messages and images from our environment. If a law exists that appears to send the message that every person of Latino heritage could be a criminal, it is important that parents everywhere provide a balanced view to that notion. Point our successful, law-abiding Latinos. Encourage friendships with Latino families and make friendships yourself.

It's up to you to walk-the-walk of a non-racist culture and model that for your children. Racism is a learned behavior, and children take their cues from laws, social behavior, glances, eye-rolls and even a parent's silence.

Break your silence and talk about this issue with your children today.

Dr. Wendy Walsh looks at the hot news topics through a lens of relationship psychology. She blogs daily for MomLogic.com and her own blog, Dating. Mating. Relating, and is the relationship expert for Pregnancy Magazine. She also appears regularly as a psychological expert on CNN and has appeared on TODAY and “The CBS Early Show.” Dr. Walsh holds a B.A. in journalism, a master’s degree in psychology, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She is the author of “The Boyfriend.” To learn more you can visit: MomLogic.com/WendyWalsh and DrWendyWalsh.com