by Esther J. Cepeda
Washington Post Writers Group Columnist

CHICAGO — It is said that your perception is your reality. This truth is more important to understand than ever since some of us are living in a time when reality is skewed by perceptions shaped by falsehoods from people in power.

Donald Trump rode into the White House by pushing the idea that Muslims have a propensity toward terrorism, that African-Americans live in crumbling ghetto war zones, and that Latinos are illegal immigrants who bring crime to communities.

If you happen to fall into any of those groups, this stuff gets into your head, even when you try hard to shut it out.

Not long ago I was walking out of Walmart with a cart full of goods and the greeter, an elderly white gentleman, stopped me to check my receipt and inspect my cart.

“Why me? Why not the white guy behind me or the little old white lady who cruised out in front of me?” I thought to myself. “Is it because of my brown skin and brown hair? Do I just look like someone who would try to sneak a few items through?”

Something similar happened at a different store last month. I was rolling my cart down the aisle and an older white lady was, seemingly out of nowhere, super rude and condescending to me.

Maybe she was just a jerk. Maybe she was just having a bad day. But I had to wonder if she felt like she could bully me because she was white and I’m not.

When you have experiences like these there are two options: (1) Feel bad about others for, potentially, having discriminated against you or (2) Feel bad about yourself for thinking discrimination was involved. (Was I, myself, racially profiling these people by attributing their behaviors to their race or ethnicity?)

Either way, you feel bad.

These everyday experiences take a toll — sometimes in ways that are completely unexpected.

For instance, a recent study published online in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies found that middle school Latino boys with higher awareness of the Arizona SB1070 law — also known as the “show me your papers” law — had a harder time controlling their classroom behavior than girls with similar knowledge of the law, and boys with less knowledge of the law.

There are a few factors at work here. For one, boys are well documented to be less able to control their impulses and behaviors in a classroom setting than are girls. And the authors, all of whom are researchers at Arizona State University at Tempe, note, “There is a growing psychological literature suggesting that males are more likely to perceive discrimination than females.”

In general, Latino boys and young men are at higher risk than their white peers and their female peers to fall behind in reading and math. Latino boys, according to the authors, “may already face social pressures that discourage self-regulatory behaviors in academic settings (e.g. peer pressure to appear to not care about school).”

Throw onto that pile the specter of upheaval due to possible effects of SB1070 on fragile family structures — i.e. knowing a family member who is living in the country without permission or having a close relative at risk for removal — and the boys themselves reported lower levels of classroom behaviors like being able to follow teacher instructions or stay quiet while others are talking.

“[This] suggests that Latino males, many of whom belong to immigrant families themselves or coexist with immigrants in their communities and schools, may be at risk for academic adjustment problems resulting from the enforcement of strict immigration laws,” wrote the authors. “Latino males have the highest school dropout [rate] compared to any other group in the U.S.A. (U.S. Department of Education 2014), and thus it is critical that we identify factors that hinder and promote the educational prospects of these youths.”

That fears about deportations breaking up families might have an adverse effect on Latino students isn’t shocking. But it is sobering that mere awareness has such an outsize effect.

Considering that research from across the country has documented post-election instances of immigration-related bullying and racism in schools, one thing is clear: No border wall has been funded or built, yet Trump’s commitment to it will have a lasting negative impact on a growing portion of the country’s public school students.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is [email protected]

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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