Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t Dr. Willie Soon, Campus Reform; According to the Mathematical Society of America, the largest body of mathematicians in the world, mathematics carries “inherent human biases” which can only be addressed by “engaging in critical, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the detrimental effects of race and racism on our community.”
ANTI-SCIENCE POLICY AND THE CENSURE OF DISCOURSE ON RACE AND RACISM
October 2, 2020
A statement from the MAA Committee on Minority Participation in Mathematics
We stand in the midst of a year of transitions. We have long been aware of broad shifts in the postsecondary education landscape, but 2020 has also been marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency distance/online/hybrid teaching. Each of these new challenges for higher education has evolved alongside a movement to stand up for Black lives. The data are clear: these issues are inseparable. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous lives are the most affected by policing, health, and education policies.
Policy must be informed by facts and science. Thanks to science and mathematics, we understand now that masks, social distancing, frequent, rapid, mass testing, and contact tracing are all fundamental to keep our communities safer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet policies at the federal level have not consistently reflected these facts; for example, choosing not to incorporate a mask-mandate in the US has had serious consequences. As Michael Dorff and Michael Pearson stated in a recent Math Values blog, “We encourage MAA members, regardless of political persuasion, to speak out for the value of science and mathematics, and hold our leaders accountable to make use of the best possible scientific evidence in policy decisions.” The social sciences are part of this community, helping us understand how to effectively communicate these practices to people, while also simultaneously analyzing our practices and policies with a critical lens. Critical race theory, referenced in recent Executive statements by the President of the United States, is an established social science inquiry which is grounded in decades of scholarship. It is misguided, at best, to reduce this theory to the race-blaming of white people and to define it and the discussion of systemic racism as a “divisive concept.” Furthermore, banning training utilizing this scholarship to raise consciousness, from federal and federal contractor workplaces, is an encroachment on science and the academy. At the first presidential debate this year, President Trump’s refusal to disavow white nationalism and his encouragement of groups that the FBI has identified as the greatest threats of domestic terrorism, only serves to reinforce the sense that his administration seeks to reverse decades of progress on civil rights for all citizens. These actions frame a current United States leadership that consistently promotes policy in direct opposition to data and science-based evidence.
Although mathematics, science, and higher education develop fact-based theories and practices that should inform policy, they are also political because they exist within a highly politicized system. Acknowledging that the United States has serious systemic discrimination has somehow leaped from a political issue to a partisan issue. More alarmingly, what we see is a series of pronouncements apparently designed to suppress conversation and action on race and racism in the United States. The American Educational Research Association recently released a statement that clearly addresses this troubling pattern of the federal response to racial justice unrest in the US, which reframes the conversation on race and racism as “unAmerican.” We borrow from and add to their list of recent, deliberate actions taken by the federal government:
- A September 4th Executive Memorandum to all Executive Departments and Agencies states that “all agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil. In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these unAmerican propaganda training sessions.”
- On September 6th, President Trump tweeted that the Department of Education was investigating schools using the 1619 project – a Pulitzer-Prize winning project meant to help fill a gap in mid-20th century US history by providing educational materials on slavery – and would withdraw funding.
- The September 16th launch of a Department of Education investigation into Princeton University weaponized a recent letter from Princeton’s President describing Princeton’s efforts to move forward with structural reform in response to reflection on their past. “On September 2, 2020, you admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist. Among other things, you said “[r]acism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton …” and “[r]acist assumptions…remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”
- The September 22nd Executive Order is framed by a preamble centering white men as being hurt by blame for racism in the US, which effectively extends the September 4th ban on racial equity training to all Federal contractors. It then defines a list of “divisive concepts” which, for example, includes the idea that the meritocracy is “racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race, as well as new terms such as “race and sex stereotyping” and “race and sex scapegoating” which seek to renarrate white fragility as racism against white people.
- The September 28th Executive memorandum, which directs Federal funding agencies to “identify all programs for which the agency may, as a condition of receiving Federal grants and cooperative agreements, require the recipient to certify that it will not use Federal funds to promote the list of concepts listed in Section 5 of the[September 22nd] Executive Order.”
As mathematicians, we notice patterns – this is something we are all trained to do. We bring these Executive actions to our community’s attention for several reasons: we see the pattern of science being ignored and the pattern of violence against our colleagues that give voice to race and racism. We need to fight against these patterns. As educators, we also recognize the threatening pattern of banning education and withdrawing education funding to suppress conversations on race and racism, extending from elementary to postsecondary institutions to the workplace and research spheres.
It is time for all members of our profession to acknowledge that mathematics is created by humans and therefore inherently carries human biases. Until this occurs, our community and our students cannot reach full potential. Reaching this potential in mathematics relies upon the academy and higher education engaging in critical, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the detrimental effects of race and racism on our community. The time is now to move mathematics and education forward in pursuit of justice.
Math Community Members:
Carrie Diaz Eaton, Chair, Committee for Minority Participation in Mathematics
Francesca Bernardi, Committee for Minority Participation in Mathematics
Christopher Goff, Committee for Minority Participation in Mathematics
Kamuela Yong, Committee for Minority Participation in Mathematics
Margaret Reese, Committee for Minority Participation in Mathematics
Michael Pearson, Executive Director, MAA
Michael Dorff, President of the MAA
Deirdre Longacher Smeltzer, Senior Director for Programs, MAA
Victor Piercey, Chair of the Michigan Section of the MAA
Jenna Carpenter, Co-Chair, Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences
Nancy Sattler, member AMATYC, MAA, TPSE, & Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences
Kathryn Kozak, AMATYC President
Anne Dudley, AMATYC Executive Director
Yun Kang, AMS representative for Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences
Omayra Ortega, Editor-in-Chief of the NAM newsletter and NAM representative for Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences
Jennifer Quinn, President-Elect of the MAA
James A. M. Álvarez, MAA Board of Directors & MAA Congress Representative for Minority Interests
Marilyn Elaine Mays, Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences
Wikipedia provides the following definition of Critical Race Theory;
Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical framework in the social sciences that examines society and culture as they relate to categorizations of race, law, and power. It is loosely unified by two common themes. Firstly, CRT proposes that white supremacy and racial power are maintained over time, and in particular, that the law may play a role in this process. Secondly, CRT work has investigated the possibility of transforming the relationship between law and racial power, as well as pursuing a project of achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination more broadly. Developed out of postmodern philosophy, it is based on critical theory, a social philosophy that argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors. It began as a theoretical movement within American law schools in the mid- to late 1980s as a reworking of critical legal studies on race issues.Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory
If there is evidence a mathematician has not received proper recognition for their work because of racism, politics, religious bigotry, or any number of other reasons, by all means correct the record and give people the recognition they deserve.
But suggesting mathematics itself is racist, as MAA appears to be doing, is a pretty big claim. To quote Carl Sagan, An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. I would like to see examples of racist mathematics. The statement provided by MAA does not appear to provide any evidence to substantiate their claim of inherent racism.