Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has documented hundreds of in-person incidents of hate speech and actions aimed at minorities, immigrants, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, with hundreds more online.
This especially worries me for the country’s future when I think about children from the targeted communities. Our recent work on the effects of instability on children sheds eye-opening light on what our children’s future may look like in an era of normalized hatred toward people like them. Children are, in some ways, the civilian casualties of this conflict.
Scientific research from across disciplines shows how important safe and stable environments are for children’s learning and growth. Research on toxic stress shows that ongoing fear and stress are not only emotionally challenging but also take a physical toll. For children, it can literally affect their brain development and future health and well-being.
Unfortunately, we are already hearing about the rise in hate incidents affecting children, and about the stress and fear they are experiencing from the hatred directed towards their families and communities. Children can be especially vulnerable to online abuse in the digital age and suffer from threats to their parents: for example, living in fear of their parents being deported.
Having strong layers of support—parents, schools, social networks, communities—can help children overcome these challenges and build resilience. But these support systems are vulnerable too. For example, parents provide kids’ primary buffer from instability and insecurity. But the current climate of hatred must make it harder for parents to be strong for their children. How difficult to be patient, thoughtful, and reassuring if you are desperately worried about your child’s safety, your own safety, your ability to earn a living or practice your religion, or whether you will be deported.
And to make it worse, the SPLC report and media have documented threats and bullying in schools and playgrounds, in communities, at churches and mosques, key places of refuge and support that in normal times can help buffer children (and parents) who feel under threat.
The potential scope of the damage is frightening. About 16 million (or almost a quarter) of our children are Latino, 10 million (or 14 percent) of our kids are black, 17.5 million are children of immigrants, and over 6 million have some form of disability. Our country is home to 3.3 million Muslims, some proportion of whom are children. These children are our future workers, leaders, taxpayers, and parents and their healthy development is important for all of us.
These actions don’t reflect who we are as a nation. I doubt that most of the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump support or engage in hate speech and actions. And I hope that understanding the consequences of attacks on vulnerable children and families spurs us all, no matter for whom we voted, to work together to help build a stabilizing web of support for children and particularly for those children who are under threat. That web could bring us together and help counteract the damage of the divisiveness we see today, and could have important effects on the future of our country.