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Assault on Inclusive Education and How We’re Fighting Back

Illustration student at desk surrounded by banned educational materials
Illustration: Lisett Ledon

Returning to the Schoolhouse Steps, Extremist Groups’ Reactionary Anti-Student Inclusion Efforts

By Maya Henson Carey

A group of Southern women are standing outside of a school, protesting changes while yelling derogations and obscenities at a child they do not want to attend the school. The only so-called threat this child poses is that, in one simple way, she is different from these women’s children. The school is now being forced to accept and acknowledge all children, not just the ones that look like theirs.

The year is 1960. Although it could just as easily be 2022.

When author John Steinbeck documented his travels across America in 1960 and encountered whom he would call the "Cheerleaders of New Orleans" standing outside of William Frantz Elementary School and screaming at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the country was still drowning in the repercussions of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation and eventually forced public schools to integrate.

This 1954 high court decision would incite in education a decades-long retaliatory campaign rooted in racism. Almost immediately after Brown was decided, Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. galvanized a movement that would be known as “massive resistance,” inciting “concerned parents” across the country to form groups to preserve segregation. Within this movement, women formed their own grassroots organizations, such as the Mothers’ League of Central High School, which fought integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the “Cheerleaders of New Orleans,” which proudly called young Ruby Bridges “bestial and filthy and degenerate.”

The Reemergence of the Attack on Inclusive Schools

The attacks following the Brown decision were not the beginning of the so-called parental rights movement, and it certainly was not the end. Going back to the 1920s, the U.S. has witnessed ebbs and flows of white, cisgender, heterosexual groups battling public education.

Regardless of the time period, most attacks against public education have been reactionary and rooted in racism, from the fight against integration after Brown v. Board, to the so-called school choice movement, to the latest attacks on inclusive education.

Segregationist parents did not relent and side-stepped Brown v. Board through self-titled “school choice” that made it possible for parents who were allowed to maintain their racist values by sending their children to private Christian academies. Some 3,500 white, racially discriminatory church-based schools sprung up in the wake of Brown v Board. However, when the tax-exempt status of these “segregation academies” were revoked by the court in 1971 and then upheld by former President Jimmy Carter’s IRS, parents claimed government infringement and violation of their parental rights to make decisions about their children's education.

This was not the first or last time claims of government overreach would be used as a protestation by these groups. It has become a common theme in iterations of anti-student inclusion groups over the decades.

Today’s so-called parental rights activists have also copied and pasted from the scripts of past groups, adapting old racist and homophobic ideas, as well as conspiracy theories asserting Marxist indoctrination. They are now adding a dash of QAnon rhetoric, accusing progressives of attempting to groom and sexualize children.

Over the past two years, reactionary anti-student inclusion groups have been popping up from coast to coast, claiming to battle for parents’ rights. Just like their predecessors, their rhetoric takes on marked anti-LGBTQ, racist and nationalist themes, excluding from their parental concern large demographics segments of American society.

These groups publicize their fight for alleged parents’ rights while simply attempting to maintain absolute authority on issues they oppose. In 2021 their primary issue was any curriculum that focused on greater inclusivity, particularly if race or the history of racism (deemed critical race theory) were addressed.

In 2022 their focus shifted more explicitly to material related to the LGBTQ community and the Biden administration's proposed changes to Title IX, providing more inclusions and protections for the LGBTQ community. A consistent tactic has been the attempt to ban books from classrooms and libraries based on what these groups deem inappropriate because the content addresses race, LGBTQ issues and gender.

"Parental rights" has once again become a common phrase as bills are introduced and passed in several states, and some politicians are making the subject a key prong of their platforms during campaigns.

In his administration’s “Parental Bill of Rights,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas promises to expand parent access to course curriculum, to remove from school libraries material he deemed pornographic and to add to the state’s “Do Not Hire Registry” anyone distributing such materials to students. Abbott has also vowed to amend the Texas constitution to ensure that parents are the primary decision makers and that their rights “cannot be overridden without due process of the law.”

In Virginia, the birthplace of massive resistance, current Gov. Glenn Youngkin capitalized on the rapidly growing movement and ran his 2021 campaign almost solely on a platform of so-called parents’ rights. Politicians have used reactionary anti-student inclusion groups to mobilize key voters, sparking fear and resentment.

By the end of 2022, 84 anti-student inclusion bills had been at least pre-filed or introduced in 26 states. Florida made waves when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which built on the existing 2021 Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights. DeSantis, is a staunch supporter of these groups and they, in turn, have enthusiastically backed him, campaigning for him and lobbying for his legislation.

Moms for Liberty: The Movement’s ‘Joyful Warriors’

In 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting remote schooling of children across the country led to a resurrection of anti-public school sentiment, as far right activists opposed school mask mandates, demanded a return to school on their terms or withdrew in favor of private or homeschool. After schools reopened, the fight morphed into confrontation about pedagogy and curriculum, as far-right antigovernment parents under the guise of simply being concerned, began to assert themselves into what can and cannot be taught in public schools.

Thanks in part to its grand disruptions at school board meetings, political alliances and extremist ties, Moms for Liberty has quickly become one of the most recognized names in the anti-student inclusion movement. Founded in early 2021, the organization claims to have a membership of over 100,000 in 250+ chapters in 42 states.

Like the mothers of massive resistance before them, Moms for Liberty is ready to fight tooth and nail to preserve the unseen but understood caste system existing in their public schools and communities. Coming together to fight mask mandates in schools in their own Florida counties, co-founders Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice and Bridget Ziegler quickly led their troops to the front lines to combat inclusive curriculum, LGBTQ rights and what they see as inappropriate reading material in classrooms and libraries.

Since the group’s 2021 founding, Moms for Liberty members across the nation have been making waves for intimidating and harassing teachers and school officials. They have publicly battled teachers’ unions, labeling them as “cartels” and “terrorist organizations.” They condemn corporations, like The Walt Disney Co., that are supportive of the LGBTQ community. They lobby for parental rights bills, such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law and advocate for anti-critical race theory bills. These groups offer rewards for identifying teachers who violate newly enacted anti-critical race theory (CRT) laws and file complaints after passage of these bills.

Following the call for an increase in inclusive curriculum and training, CRT was spotlighted in areas where it never had been before. What began primarily in graduate-level coursework in the mid-1970s as a concept to explore the intersection of culture, race and power in U.S. society, CRT has exploded into mainstream America discourse, often pegged as a savage ideology aimed to paint all whites as racists and to indoctrinate children.

With claims that CRT is anti-American, reactionary anti-student inclusion groups vehemently oppose its tenets, such as the concept of systemic oppression. Critical race theory is labeled as racist, with adversaries often appropriating the line from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech expressing his hope that his children not be judged by the “color of their skin but by the content of their character.” However, as civil rights attorney Alfred Blumrosen observed, “It [is] clear that a ‘color-blind’ society built upon the subordination of persons of one color [is] a society which [cannot] correct that subordination because it [can] never recognize it.”

Critical race theory is at the top of the hit list for many reactionary anti-student inclusion groups, who erroneously label as CRT anything having to do with race, equity, inclusion or teaching parts of history that they do not wish to face or acknowledge. In fact, one Moms for Liberty chapter in Tennessee filed a complaint under the state’s new anti-CRT law, claiming that some books taught in schools such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington and Ruby Bridge’s autobiography were anti-American and anti-white. This is the very same Ruby Bridges that in decades past the Cheerleaders of New Orleans harassed for trying to walk to public school. According to the complaint, the Moms for Liberty chapter took issue with things like pictures depicting Bridges’ accounts of walking to school and seeing signs reading, “We want segregation.”

In June, Moms for Liberty’s newly created political action committee was propelled by a $50,000 gift from Florida-based Publix grocery store heiress Julie Fancelli, who also helped finance one of the rallies leading up to the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded storming of the U.S. Capitol Complex.

In an effort to expand its footing in local government, the organization, along with its Political Action Committee, endorsed 270 school board candidates during the 2022 mid-term elections. It is their stated goal to have a chapter in all 3,000 U.S. counties and to “recruit moms to serve as watchdogs over all 13,000 school districts.”

During the mid-terms, Moms for Liberty claims to have “flipped” 17 school boards to parental rights-supportive majorities. Almost immediately following elections, many of these boards began making sweeping changes at school board meetings, such as firing superintendents and making curriculum changes.

In Berkeley County, South Carolina, for instance, the newly sworn in school board voted 6-2 to ban the teaching of “critical race theory.” The six who voted in favor were all endorsed by Moms for Liberty during the mid-term election. During the same meeting, the school board voted to fire the superintendent and replace him with a school board member supported by Moms for Liberty, fire the school district’s attorney and establish a committee to evaluate the appropriateness of books and materials for school.

Despite their efforts to seize control of school boards, rewrite curricula and determine which reading materials are appropriate for all students, Moms for Liberty is simultaneously advocating for the total abolition of the U.S. Department of Education and a migration from the public school model.

As a featured speaker at the first Moms for Liberty national summit in Florida, former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated, “I personally think that the Department of Education should not exist.” The organization featured the quote on the website as a teaser to invite followers to view further content from the Summit. Further, in October 2021 the group’s then-spokesperson discussed a “mass exodus from the public school system,” explaining that parents have several homeschooling and private school options. In fact, several Moms for Liberty chapter pages feature private schools they endorse.

Sarasota, Florida: A Case Study in Hate and Extremism

In June 2022, Florida Gov. DeSantis took to Twitter to make an unprecedented move: he endorsed 10 school board candidates throughout the state in races considered nonpartisan. One of those endorsed candidates was incumbent Sarasota County school board member Bridget Ziegler. Although the Moms for Liberty co-founder left the group back in 2021, she still maintains affiliation and still very much operates by the same playbook.

Ziegler’s August reelection to the Sarasota County School Board likely came thanks in part to her husband Christian Ziegler’s position as vice-chair of the Florida Republican party and a ringing endorsement from the Proud Boy-run Sarasota Watchdogs, an affiliation Ziegler has since attempted to downplay. In September 2022, she told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Proud Boys were not “involved with the work, and they played no part in the win. ...These guys who show up — are total yahoos, irrelevant.” Yet according to reports, Ziegler was photographed with known Proud Boys celebrating at an election-night victory party.

It did not take long for the newly installed school board, including Ziegler, to apply pressure to Sarasota County School Board Superintendent Brennan Asplen, who had been at the helm since 2020, led the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and earned a state rating of “A” both years. After a grilling from the new school board, which heavily favored a non-inclusive curriculum, books bans and opposed LGBTQ rights, Asplen submitted his resignation, stating, “I spend more time on politics and nonsense than anything else. I can’t even spend time on a lot of the instructional (elements) because we're dealing with this kind of nonsense.” He continued, “Does anybody know what I am? No? I am a conservative Republican.”

Tom Edwards, the only board member who voted against the resignation motion concluded, “What we’re doing here tonight, the chaos that this board brought needlessly, is to create chaos in public education so that they can advance charter schools for profit.”

According to Carol Lerner, co-director of a pro-student inclusion organization called Support Our Schools, Sarasota was not always like it is today. A retired educator, Lerner chose Sarasota because of its arts and culture, but she explains that the county's turn toward hate and extremism happened in several waves. The first occurred in 2020 when then-President Trump gave a speech accusing schools of indoctrinating students with Black Lives Matter propaganda and “far-left fascism.” This prompted a clash in the Sarasota community with those who absolutely saw systemic racism and those, like Bridget Ziegler, who took to Facebook to post things like “Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate.”

Finally, when COVID-19 hit, Sarasota was among the 12 counties in the state that had a school board that disregarded Gov. DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, following instead those issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This, along with the fight against including so-called critical race theory in school curriculum, was the catalyst behind the founding of Moms for Liberty in Florida and sister groups in the area.

Wasting no time, Moms for Liberty and its members have built ties with politicians and extremist groups alike. Paulina Testerman, co-director of Support Our Schools in Florida and advocate for inclusive schools and accurate history, noted the stronghold the movement had on the state, “There was a time when extremism was concealed behind layers of insulation. Those days have passed. Moms for Liberty are emboldened throughout the country, but the root of their organizations and their hate is certainly deep in Florida soil.”

Looking Ahead

During the years immediately following Brown v. Board, the fight was easily identifiable: anti-integration. Groups formed in the era of massive resistance were proud segregationists.

Now, almost seven decades after Brown and the Civil Rights Acts, “parental rights” has once again become a common rallying cry with an even larger boogeyman: inclusion.

Over the past few years, many reactionary anti-student inclusion groups have risen across the country in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and an increased focus on equity and inclusion programs. They have also quickly fomented their place as part of the hard-right movement.

These groups continue to spread conspiratorial rhetoric, opposing what they consider to be indoctrinating public school curricula and plots by progressives to groom schoolchildren for sexual exploitation. They also seek legitimacy and mask hate speech by combining their vitriol with rhetoric that appeals to concerned parents.

Reactionary anti-student inclusion groups such as Moms for Liberty, Moms for America, Parents Defending Education that the SPLC lists as extremist groups are, by their very nature, responding to social progress that they dislike and have no control over. Like many other hard-right groups, these reactionary anti-student inclusion groups are constantly painting themselves as an oppressed class, while vilifying those discriminated against.

These groups denigrate lessons on diversity and inclusion. They spew homophobic and transphobic speech in the name of protecting their children’s innocence, disregarding and disrespecting children in the LGBTQ community. They ban reading materials that they deem inappropriate, which almost always happens to be LGBTQ or non-white in subject matter. They embrace racist and nationalist ideology, claiming to want the teaching of America’s accurate history in the schools but label the true, harsh history of the country as unpatriotic and unsuitable for children.

Much like the massive resistance groups before them, the reactionary anti-student inclusion groups of today are just wielding coded language for white, cisgender, straight rights above all others. And if these reactionary parents are allowed to turn back the hands of time and continue transforming schools and curricula into what only they want to see, schools will once again become less welcoming and inclusive for anyone they consider not like them.

Illustration of students under books
Illustration: Lisett Ledon

Support Our Schools: Protecting Inclusive Public Education

By Lydia Bates

Carol Lerner and Paulina Testerman were both wearing red T-shirts on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. “We’re trying to get people to wear red for ed, which is the color of the movement” for inclusive and truthful public education, Lerner explained.

They were gearing up for what was expected to be another contentious school board meeting that evening in Sarasota, Florida. Lerner and Testerman are co-directors of Support Our Schools (SOS), a nascent but growing nonprofit founded on the belief that “all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability or religion are entitled to a modern education in a safe and inclusive environment.”

Paulina Testerman
Paulina Testerman is co-director of Support Our Schools, a group in Florida founded in response to anti-mask conspiracies and hate-fueled attacks on public schools. (Credit: Martina Tuaty)

The group coalesced in August 2021, largely in response to anti-mask conspiracies and hate-fueled attacks on public schools. “We came together and decided there was a need for a fight, a pushback,” said Testerman, “so we decided we needed to become a nonprofit, that we needed to organize formally.”

In doing so, Support Our Schools became a focal point of resilience in Florida. The group built a website and Facebook page to coordinate with local members and compile a mailing list. They also hosted forums on book bans and the rewriting of history to help inform and empower community members.

Propagated by anti-student inclusion groups like Moms for Liberty and Moms for America, the far-right attacks that galvanized Support Our Schools have contributed to volatile climates for educators and school board members, as well as unsafe, regressive learning environments for students. Educating for a Diverse Democracy, a study published in November 2022 by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, and University of California, Riverside, looks at the impact these polarizing efforts have on American public schools. In the researchers’ survey of 682 public school principals, more than “two-thirds reported substantial political conflict over hot button issues” in their schools.

In particular, conflict is prevalent in politically mixed–or "purple”–areas, where “some parents, connected to conservative national organizations, such as ‘Moms for Liberty,’ are aggressively challenging and even threatening educators over policies and curriculum on race, LGBTQ+ rights and other issues.” Specifically, principals reported that parents and community members “sought to limit or challenge: Teaching about issues of race and racism (50%); Policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ student rights (48%); Student access to books in the school library (33%); or Social Emotional Learning (39%).”

“We refuse to allow our teachers to be vilified. We refuse to allow our students to be political pawns,” Testerman said. “We refuse to allow politicians to financially suffocate public education while lining the pockets of their supporters who are building charter school conglomerates.”

Carol Lerner
Carol Lerner is co-director of Support Our Schools, a group in Florida founded in response to anti-mask conspiracies and hate-fueled attacks on public schools.

Collective Power

In light of this resilient messaging, SOS’ reputation has grown. “We get at least 50 emails a week” said Lerner, “cities, counties, states, asking if we can start a chapter there, if we can help them, and we’re happy to share what’s working.” To accommodate the influx of inquiries and to better disseminate information, SOS is revamping its website, hosting more community forums and will meet monthly. 

For others seeking to develop similar efforts in their community, Lerner and Testerman encourage people to attend school board meetings, use their voices, build collective power and organize. Involvement can be as simple as donating to local groups doing the work or as involved as making your own nonprofit to network with other groups in your state. “Anyone can be an activist,” both Lerner and Testerman said, “you just have to care.”

While small organizations like SOS “being pitted up against a machine-like Moms For Liberty … may feel like a David and Goliath challenge,” Testerman said, they “honestly ... make the work easy. They don’t even hide their bigotry, their homophobia or their racism. That, she said, “just means that all of these small grassroots organizations have to come together and stand united and fight back.”

Jennifer Hoppe in front of Everytown for Gun Safety logo
Jennifer Hoppe is the senior director of National Programs at Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. (Credit: Eric Lee)

Understanding Youth and Radicalizing Firearms Narratives To Build a Safer Future

By Aaron Flanagan

The epidemic of gun violence in the United States injects pain and trauma into communities every day. Consider K-12 schools, for example. Researchers at Everytown for Gun Safety have found: “Every year, more than 3,500 children and teens are shot and killed, and 15,000 more are shot and injured. An estimated 3 million children in the U.S. are exposed to shootings per year.” But such statistics only scratch the surface of rippling harms felt across families and communities.

Lindsay Clarida
Lindsay Clarida is a National Organizing Director at Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. (Credit: Nate Palmer)

Polarizing political schisms in our country have opened another dimension of danger. Published in the wake of the white supremacist attack on Black community members in Buffalo, New York, polling by SPLC and Tulchin Research found that while levels of support for threats and violence generally do not differ substantially among partisans, 44% of Americans agreed that the “U.S. seems headed toward a civil war in the near future.” Online and offline, young people find themselves vulnerable to manipulative rhetoric related to firearms and gun violence. These firearm narratives are often premised on rigid, regressive gender roles and stoke racist fears about the need for protection to appeal more to young white men and boys.

“Youth have always been a vulnerable population for both radicalization and mobilization to violence,” Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, founding director of the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Laboratory at American University (PERIL) explains, “in part because they are still figuring out who they are and who they want to be. This means it’s also an ideal time to intervene in ways that build resilience to manipulative propaganda and harmful online content. Parents, caregivers, and the broader network of trusted adults in communities can help build resilience by modeling kindness, empathy, and developing strategies to give youth a sense of control and efficacy in their lives.”

In responding to this critical moment, Everytown, PERIL and SPLC found shared concerns. Together, in the winter of 2021, we launched an innovative project to identify and study these radicalizing narratives related to firearms. With that research, our objective is to produce safe, effective resources designed to inoculate young people against such harm and manipulation.

At the project midpoint we’ve concluded a groundbreaking survey of over 4,100 young people between the ages of 14 and 30 (due out late spring). Our findings from this nationally representative sample address knowledge gaps regarding young people’s attitudes and will serve as the scientific foundation for our resources to come. In January 2023, we spoke to our strategic partners at Everytown and PERIL about these findings, what they found most concerning and hopeful, and about existing and future solutions to help safeguard our communities against these dangerous narratives.

SPLC: Why was it important to conduct this groundbreaking survey? What results do you feel others urgently need to understand?

Everytown: Too often discussions about extremism, racism and misogyny leave out gun violence, despite the crucial role that guns play in violent extremism. Guns have become the leading cause of death for kids and teens in this country, and yet there is very little research of this quality and depth on youth attitudes toward firearms. This study provides us with critical information on how young people view and think about guns, which will in turn allow us to better understand the steps we can take to potentially disrupt the nexus between extremism and gun violence and to educate young people about guns and gun culture.

PERIL: Gun violence is both a cause and an outcome of radicalization to violent extremism. The trauma, precarity and general state of fear produced by a society overflowing with weapons produces so many of the key conditions that help to prime young people for radicalization to political violence. At the same time, we see how chronic structural injustices like white supremacy and patriarchy are themselves motivators for the spread of gun ownership and gun violence. This is a dynamic that we have to understand better, especially as it affects young people who are the most vulnerable to it.

SPLC: A range of our partnership’s survey findings demonstrate that a majority of youth and younger people feel unsafe in their schools. Given our findings about the fear, worry and trauma related to gun violence that young people live with, what are the long-term effects on the mental health of young people having to live with such negativity?

PERIL: It can’t be overstated how damaging it is to young men and women to live with this kind of mental distress. Watching repeated mass shootings covered in the news and on social media can engender feelings of fear, hypervigilance and hopelessness. Students and young people are responding rationally to the very real threat of violence in their schools, in their local shopping centers and in their neighborhoods. On average, youth know at least one person who has been injured or killed by guns, over 25% of young people in our study have been in a live active shooter lockdown, and 69% have been trained in how to mitigate these threats and protect themselves via active shooter drills. These experiences can lead to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic distress and a general sense that they are not safe in their state, in their school and in public. Seeing adults in their lives and politicians in their government ignoring or failing to adequately respond to these threats can lead young people to conclude that they are not safe now and that this will not change any time soon.

SPLC: Which public places are youth and younger people feeling most at-risk for gun violence, and what policies do you think would best support them in mitigating these feelings of fear?

Everytown: Gun violence occurs in public and private places, and young people are at-risk of gun violence in their schools, malls, movie theaters, houses of worship, in the community and in their homes. School shootings make up a small proportion of overall gun violence but have an outsized effect on feelings of safety due to the seemingly random nature and persistent threat. The data show how common-sense solutions can create healthy, positive school climates while reducing the risk of gun violence. School shooters are nearly always students or recent former students who showed warning signs that were observed ahead of time and accessed an unsecured firearm from the home of a family or friend. Positive school climates, tools for identifying students in crisis and developing student-centered intervention plans and ensuring guns in the home are securely stored can stop school shootings before they start. Proposals such as adding more police in schools, arming teachers, intense active shooter drills and “zero tolerance” discipline policies have not been shown to make schools safer and can actually cause harm to students of color or those with disabilities. The data shows we can meet student fear with healthy, evidence-informed solutions.

SPLC: What role can adults play in spearheading conversations about responsible gun ownership, the risks associated with unsecured guns and secure firearm storage in an effort to normalize gun safety as part of American culture?

Everytown : Data shows that secure gun storage is a proven way to reduce unintentional shootings and gun suicide among youth (which is on the rise), as well as reducing the number of guns in schools. Yet, an estimated 54% of gun owners do not lock up all of their guns. Storing guns so that they are inaccessible to kids – and any other unauthorized person – is one of the most important things a gun owner can do in the interest of safety. And whether or not one owns a gun, all adults can help to destigmatize conversations about gun safety and secure firearm storage. Simply asking friends or family members about how their guns are stored and encouraging others to practice secure storage can go a long way to reducing youth access to guns. Adults should feel empowered to have thoughtful, pragmatic conversations about the importance of securely storing firearms so that they are not accessible to kids and unauthorized people.

SPLC: In our survey, we tested the “Male Supremacy Scale” developed by Dr. Pasha Dashtgard of PERIL and a symbolic racism scale called the “Racial Resentment Scale.” What was most concerning about the findings as they correlate to radicalizing narratives regarding ownership of firearms?

PERIL: There is a clear and intentional connection being made between gun ownership and masculinity by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun entities/institutions. Pro-gun organizations prey on the insecurities of boys and men who wish to affirm and display their manliness by suggesting that purchasing guns and participating in “gun culture” will grant you status as a tough, strong, real, “Alpha” man. When you combine this with the way boys and men are socialized to be “independent” (i.e. isolated, lonely and with less friends/a smaller social network than their female counterparts) and the stigma around men seeking and receiving mental health support when they are struggling, you can then begin to make sense of the shocking/tragic relationship between masculinity and gun-related suicides.

SPLC: Our partnership has come together to deliver safe, effective solutions and your respective organizations work every day to help prevent violence in communities and schools across the country. What about our findings gives you the most hope?

Everytown: There was a wide consensus among the young people interviewed for this study that gun violence is a serious problem and that gun laws can make a difference. Evidence shows that policies like background checks, assault weapons ban, extreme-risk laws, violence intervention programs, etc. can reduce gun violence. These results demonstrate that young people are aware of how serious an issue this is and that there are solutions to this crisis, which make us hopeful that young people will support commonsense solutions such as those outlined above.

PERIL: The problem of gun violence and the power of pro-gun propaganda can feel overwhelming. But this work shows that those things can be analyzed, and their key elements can be addressed in a conscious, intentional manner. This work shows that we must treat the legitimate fears of violence and victimization, which young people wrongly believe guns will solve. But this work also shows how fear can grow out of racial and gender stereotypes, which are illegitimate and need to be corrected. It’s crucial to disentangle the legitimate and illegitimate concerns that lead young people to see guns as a solution, and this work gives us hope that can be done.

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