Lethal combination of racism and guns can be addressed in schools, but not in Florida | Opinion

·3 min read

You enter the grocery store and immediately locate the closest exit, continuously look over your shoulder. You hold your child closely because in the U.S., at any given moment, you can be targeted and killed because of your identity and existence.

Just recently, a male white supremacist intentionally planned and methodically executed a mass killing of Black individuals in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. While racism may exacerbate psychiatric disorders, racism alone is not mental illness; it is learned and perpetuated by hateful bigoted individuals, including those in positions of power. In Florida, lawmakers continuously exhaust racist tactics while simultaneously attempting to relinquish gun laws. This combination can have deadly consequences.

Understanding racism and shifting toward change begins with identification and self-reflection of one’s own privilege. Beginning this work during childhood is critical, as children develop meaning and understanding of the world through an empathic lens.

And yet, Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, signed into law, prohibits teachings of critical race theory or topics that compel a student to believe they “bear personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” due to past actions from members of the same race or nationality.

Recognizing one’s privilege in the world may illicit discomfort, but does not directly induce prolonged psychological distress. Rather, generational racial trauma in the forms of mass shootings, police brutality, assaults and discrimination leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety and trauma among racial minorities. Ignoring racism and actively whitewashing history in schools denies students fundamental learning experiences and perpetuates hate and discrimination that has fueled lethal outcomes for racial minorities.

Teaching Florida kids

As part of this act, the Florida Department of Education is seeking textbooks that prohibit “critical race theory, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, social and emotional learning.” Social emotional learning is an integral aspect of child development and education. In fact, children with higher emotional intelligence are better able to pay attention, are more engaged in school, exhibit positive relationships, are more empathic and earn higher grades. Emotional intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of future success. Thus, the removal of social emotional learning from schools is a disservice to students and will likely hinder future success.

In 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, an almost 30% increase from the year prior. This past month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signaled support for constitutional carry in the state of Florida, which will allow individuals to purchase and carry a gun in public without a permit.

Two of our nation’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in Florida under current gun regulations and prior to the passing of two discriminatory bills. Recent Florida legislative actions along with hate-driven rhetoric will reverse any efforts for improved gun control and fuel racism, hate and violence — lethal combinations.

Along with significantly stricter gun laws, open, honest and safe discussions regarding our country’s historical and ongoing systemic racism will educate youth and facilitate cultural awareness and humility. Within these discussions, youth will develop invaluable social emotional skills that increase their future success.

Children and adolescents, particularly racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities deserve change, advocacy and protection from discrimination and threats to their physical safety.

Natasha L. Poulopoulos is a pediatric psychologist in Miami and an advocate for youth mental health.