Chad Topaz was scheduled to speak at 9:30 this morning at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver, at the AMS Special Session on the Mathematics of Social Justice. His title was Diversity through a Data Science Lens, and you can read his abstract here. His talk was cancelled, however, so I won’t be able to tell you whether or not he touched on the topic of the article excerpted above. Since his name is out of alphabetical order I assume he was the lead author. The article sheds a not entirely unexpected light on the controversy over diversity hiring statements to which I have already devoted three blog posts. Here is the summary:
We report on a study of the signatories’ demographics, which we infer using a crowdsourcing approach. Letter A highlights diversity and social justice. The pool of signatories contains relatively more individuals inferred to be women and/or members of underrepresented ethnic groups. Moreover, this pool is diverse with respect to the levels of professional security and types of academic institutions represented. Letter B does not comment on diversity, but rather, asks for discussion and debate. This letter was signed by a strong majority of individuals inferred to be white men in professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities. Letter C speaks out specifically against diversity statements, calling them “a mistake,” and claiming that their usage during early stages of faculty hiring “diminishes mathematical achievement.” Individuals who signed both Letters B and C, that is, signatories who both privilege debate and oppose diversity statements, are overwhelmingly inferred to be tenured white men at highly research intensive universities.
There is a very interesting rhetorical move here. It can be presumed that many of those who signed Letters B and C take their “professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities” as license to speak out with authority on matters affecting the discipline. Although the report by Topaz et al. does not say so explicitly, it seems to imply that it is precisely the “professionally secure position” that disqualifies its holder as an objective observer. In other words, the article questions the legitimacy of the charismatic hierarchy that is the subject of chapter 2 of MWA: to the hierarchy’s claim to be based on professional merit, the article replies with a reading that sees it as a self-sustaining system designed to maintain undeserved (disproportionately white male) privilege.
This is not a new perspective; it was commonplace during the period of the science wars, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when it became less noticeable in the aftermath of the Sokal affair. Thirty years ago, however, this point of view was not widely shared among mathematicians. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there were regular sessions on Mathematics of Social Justice at Joint Mathematical Meetings in the 1980s and 1990s.
The starting point of the diversity statement controversy, I believe, is the undeniable fact that the community of professional mathematicians in the US is demographically extremely skewed relative to the country’s population. “Underrepresented minorities,” in particular, are really underrepresented. All the mathematicians I know see this as a real problem. Some of the positions mentioned at the Mathematics of Social Justice session suggest that mathematics as currently constituted — in its pedagogy, its recruitment, and its charismatic hierarchy— is designed in such a way as (not necessarily intentionally) to exclude the underrepresented populations. The solution would then be to replace the existing structures of mathematics by something new.
How might we imagine that something new? Over the past few days in Denver I learned a great deal about a variety of inspiring initiatives at universities and schools around the country. Some of them can be found at this list on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog (which certainly did not exist thirty years ago). I will be studying them over the coming weeks — I encourage readers to do the same — and it’s likely I’ll be writing about some of them.
I am pretty sure, though, that none of the new initiatives has anything to do with diversity statements. I strongly believe that in the controversy that (as Topaz et al indicates) has not yet died down, the diversity statement itself is serving as a proxy for some more substantial objective. This is confirmed by a message I received from one of the signatories of Letter A:
At this point the fight seems to be about whether understanding and working with students’ different backgrounds should be treated as part of the professorial job description, with Thompson representing what is probably the majority default of something like “colorblind racism”. So I think there’s value in saying loudly that the colorblind position is no longer an acceptable starting point for a worthwhile contribution to diversity/equity/justice, with the emphasis being on using diversity frameworks as a stepping stone to what we really want, which is a justice-based framework.
Where I come from, “colorblind racism” counts as fighting words. The most obvious defect of Letter A is its inclusion of the expression “reverse racism” in quotes, when it appeared nowhere in Abigail Thompson’s letter. For all I know, many people who signed Letter A sincerely believed that Thompson had accused the supporters of diversity statements of “reverse racism.” But leaving misrepresentation aside, I have tried to argue that diversity frameworks are a particularly slippery stepping stone, since they were explicitly designed as an alternative to a “justice-based framework.” The author of this comment believed as well that “[i]f you belong to the ‘fundamentally not fair’ camp, then you’re stuck with the unfortunate ‘diversity’ formulation, but at least from there the door can be wedged open.” As far as I’m concerned this is magical thinking, as is the claim in the same comment that support for diversity statements is “an affirmative sign of where the institutional leadership stands” — as if the very institution targeted by the Bakke decision would make any effort to use the decision’s framework to undermine the decision.
Here, on the other hand, is a comment from a colleague who signed Letter B:
I thought the letters in support of Abigail were not about the diversity per se, but rather about the bullying that she became the subject of. Typical exclusion in the name of inclusion …
I objected to the use of the word “bullying.”
Has she been attacked by powerful people, or only by noisy but mainly powerless people? I would reserve the term “bullying” for the former.
And my colleague replied:
Not sure who is powerful anymore, your allegedly powerless people can easily destroy people’s lives and, certainly, careers.
It seems to me that the threat to Abigail Thompson’s career — presumably from Chad Topaz’s initial reaction to her article — was no less exaggerated than her comparison of diversity statements to loyalty oaths, but it also seems to me likely that most of the people who signed Letters B and C were responding to this imagined threat — I didn’t sign any of the letters but I am no more inclined than they to trust “institutional leadership”
— and not to defend their privileged status of overrepresentation. This is one reason the Topaz et al. article is so interesting; because it aims to undermine the presumption that privileged positions are awarded solely (better to say almost solely) on the basis of merit.
I would like to hear from the authors of that article how they imagine mathematics would look if the charismatic hierarchy were undermined. But that’s a complicated issue, and I would like to end on an observation that Topaz et al. may have missed. The article calculates that women made up 27.8% of the signatories of Letter C — making them underrepresented by some measure and within the representative range by others. I went through the list and discovered that, of the 45 women who signed, exactly 4 were from the US (though a few may have acquired US citizenship). I can attest that students in France are not taught to look to the US for good ideas about managing race relations, and I suspect something similar is true in the countries where most of these women grew up.