Can mathematics be antiracist? Part I

 

If a disease like Covid-19 could push higher education to the brink of collapse, perhaps something is rotten in the system. This is what we should be addressing.        (Cinzia Arruzza, Chronicle of Higher Education)

Mathematics is deeply democratic.  You can be Black or White or any other color; male, female, or gender non-conforming; European or African or an extraterrestrial giant; ten years old or dead more than 40000 years.  As long as you know the rules, you are welcome to play; and history has shown that the rules are always flexible.

Mathematics is deeply antidemocratic.  Mathematics is not a “marketplace of ideas”; arguments are settled with QED and then they will never again be unsettled.  The rules have been established once and for all, and there is no room for dissenting opinions.

This post will not attempt to reconcile these two apparently incompatible visions of mathematics, both of which are at least implicitly invoked whenever the reasons for the field’s visible demographic imbalance are discussed.  Instead, I will take up the challenge proposed on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog under the title #ShutDownMath:

Our goal needs to be to create an environment in which any person who WANTS to be a mathematician, can.

 

 

On second thought, I’m going to pass on this particular challenge, which, if taken literally, would necessitate a “full-blown social revolution,” to quote just different‘s comment on this blog — and the comment seems to suggest, reasonably enough, that “social revolution” talk can serve as an excuse for postponing action indefinitely.  But I do hope that whoever wrote that sentence will agree that an environment in which any person who WANTS to be gainfully employed as a mathematician — or gainfully employed at all, for that matter — has never existed; that according to Friedrich von Hayek such an environment would be impossible; and that therefore creating such an environment would require not only a thorough rejection of neoliberal thinking but more importantly a thorough reorganization of work and of the social distribution of wealth  — a social revolution, in other words.

So I will interpret the word “goal” in that sentence as “aspiration” and stick to challenges that can be accomplished, to continue quoting just different, provided “higher ed institutions radically change their curricula and admissions practices.”  This “change” may or may not be radical enough to qualify as the “change” in the sentence in #ShutDownMath that immediately follows the last one:

To change mathematics itself so that it actually serves Black and Indigenous communities.

Let me suggest as a friendly amendment, “to change North American mathematics itself…”  Leaving aside whether the rest of the world is really responsible for the aftermath of what have rightly been described as our Republic’s twin original sins, it’s wise to avoid hinting that even the wokest mathematicians in this highly militarized country are plotting to change the practice elsewhere.  Halfway through the second week of the protests following George Floyd’s murder, my French colleagues were grumbling yet again about the AMS’s soft imperialism through what they perceived as extortionate prices for MathSciNet subscriptions.   And I’m sure that they and most of my colleagues around the world would find grating the insistence of #ShutDownMath on individual rather than collective action.  (But because I don’t want to let my French colleagues totally off the hook, I advise everyone who reads French to check out this extremely timely article about French racism by filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your NegroYoung Marx).)

But to return to the point, I don’t see any necessary connection between the last two sentences quoted.    If by “be a mathematician” #ShutDownMath means “obtain academic positions” (and not to work as quants or defense analysts or spooks or data miners), then the problem is well posed:  find the “any person[s] who WANT” to obtain such positions, and then match them through an expansion of the normal training process — unaltered — with the positions.  I’m going to pretend to share the inclusion/exclusion authors’ unfounded optimism that higher education as we know it will not collapse in the near future and there still will be stable academic positions in the numbers to which we have been accustomed.  And, just to make the speculation more lively, I will admit the next sentence from #ShutDownMath —

White and non-Black POC don’t need to recruit people as props to make us feel better, we need to get out of the way.

— and assume that the requisite number of positions for Black and Indigenous people who WANT to become mathematicians are not already occupied by White and non-Black POC.

Granting all these assumptions, I have no doubt that the people in question can actually be found by a concerted effort — something like a vastly expanded version of the Math Alliance program, together with the (possibly massive, but possibly not) funding needed to coordinate the process and to provide support as needed for Ph.D. students who presumably (because just different has taken social revolution off the table) have not enjoyed the unearned privileges of the typical Ph.D. students of the current generation.  This is probably the right place to insert an otherwise completely incongruous

White Privilege Anecdote

In January I rented a car in Manhattan for a day trip with my family to Long Island, which is home to many people (2.8 million, more or less, past Brooklyn and Queens) but for us counts as uncharted territory.  None of us had ever been to a Hampton before, and we frankly didn’t know what to make of it when we finally saw one, even after we had explored it past sundown.  On our way back, and close to the City, I stopped to refill the gas tank, then turned left down a side street, at the end of which the internet had chosen a place for our dinner.  I had hardly driven three blocks when I saw the lights of a police car flashing in my rear view mirror.  Although I had no idea what was going on, I duly pulled to the side and waited for the officer to shine a flashlight into the front seat and ask for my license (which I provided) and registration (which the rental agency had not provided).  He then explained that I had driven through a red light (which I had not seen, but which I believed was perfectly possible).  After a few minutes of cordial conversation, he told me he would not write a ticket but admonished me to stop at red lights in the future.  I thanked him (naturally) and as he left he also advised me to turn on my headlights, which I had forgotten to switch back on when I left the gas station, as I often do in a rental car.

“To change mathematics itself”

So with a good deal of attention, a commitment to funding that is (possibly, but possibly not) massive (but still negligible compared to budgets for police, not to mention the military), and considerable good will, I claim that the demographics of mathematics departments can be transformed in the space of a generation (the time to dispatch current professors to a comfortable retirement) to match those of the wider North American population, where the “environment” will be no more uncomfortable than that of society at large.  The authors of #ShutDownMath will now be justified in complaining that I either unwittingly or maliciously missed the point of the post, namely the sentences that preceded the one about “creat[ing] an environment”:

We also want to make a distinction here — the problem is systemic racism, not just underrepresentation (even “underrepresented minority” is a terrible term to use). If we continue business as usual, it is disingenuous to focus only on recruiting more Black, Indigenous, Latinx students into our programs.

My problem is interpreting the juxtaposition of “business as usual,” which presumably refers to the practices that, as we read in the next paragraph, “have marginalized many groups” and may even “cause irreparable harm,” with the image of the person who “WANTS to be a mathematician.”  No person WANTS to suffer irreparable harm, so either (a) the person doesn’t see “business as usual” as irredeemable, or (b) what the person WANTS involves “chang[ing] mathematics itself” into something about which we know primarily what it is not — not “entrenched in systems of white supremacy,” not a source of “structural and systemic oppression,” not marginalizing, not the status quo… not business as usual.

Now I have a hunch that it will be difficult to change business as usual in mathematics into something else without confronting the business as usual of higher education itself, with its hierarchies within hierarchies and a financial model whose sustainability has been visibly in question since the student debt crisis exploded in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.  But that once again leads us, if not into the treacherous landscape of social revolution which just different has taken off the table, at least into its foothills.  So let’s leave that aside for the moment and just acknowledge that there is an endless gradation between tinkering as in (a) above with hiring practices and bad attitudes and a thoroughgoing metaphysical transformation as in (b).  For example, I found this minimal list of the changes needed to “business as usual” in John Rice’s article in The Atlantic, where he calls it “third-degree racism”:

(1) acknowledging what constitutes third-degree racism so there is no hiding behind a lack of understanding or fuzzy math, (2) committing to developing and executing diversity plans that meet a carefully considered and externally defined standard of rigor, and (3) delivering outcomes in which the people of color have the same opportunities to advance.

Rice’s list is addressed to “major employers” but I suspect a majority of colleagues would agree that the changes would be welcome in mathematics departments, where the obstacles to bringing them about would nevertheless be formidable.  At least one prominent university department is already making what seems to me to be a good faith effort into working to overcome these obstacles.  And they seem perfectly compatible with Federico Ardila-Mantilla’s Four Axioms, which have been widely quoted and have been adopted by another (probably more than one) prominent university department.

However, these changes can be implemented while leaving the content and the professional practice of mathematics intact (not to mention its presumed metaphysical underpinnings).  And I worry that Rice’s talk of “delivering outcomes,” like the good faith effort mentioned above, looks dangerously like what Ibram X. Kendi calls assimilationism in his #1 New York Times bestseller How to Be an AntiracistFor Kendi assimilationism is one of the principal forms of racism.   The changes we were ready to celebrate in the last paragraph fall far short of (b), and if the “business as usual” of mathematics is already racist, none of the concrete measures I’ve seen suggested goes nearly far enough.

Is the metaphysical basis of mathematics intrinsically oppressive?  Is the mathematical hierarchy racist?  Can the metaphysics and the hierarchy even be separated?  Is the inclusion/exclusion blog’s perspective on inclusion and exclusion reformist or revolutionary — Antiracist or merely assimilationist?

It’s also worth examining whether or not this initiative to boycott police work is business as usual or a reaction against business as usual…

This was originally going to be a post about the unbelievably dreary details of the hiring process under “business as usual” in a typical pure mathematics department.  My aim was to identify stages in the process where a well-timed intervention could effectively outflank “third-degree racism,” change the delivered outcomes, and maybe even spark the beginning of a metaphysical as well as sociological transformation in the field as a whole.  But this post has gone on long enough, so those questions will have to be reserved for Part II, or for the social revolution — whichever comes first.

 

4 thoughts on “Can mathematics be antiracist? Part I

  1. Graham White

    I agree with a great deal of this, but I think that it connects with another issue which maybe has not been addressed. The issue is the idea, among mathematicians, that mathematics is an activity which is qualitatively different from, and better than, other intellectual activities (and, because of this, qualitatively different from, and better than, all other human activities). A lot of mathematicians (sadly) seem to believe this, and it’s very pernicious. It connects to issues like white privilege, because you can only hold an attitude like this if you live a fairly sheltered life, and the people who lead a sheltered life are disproportionately white. So it’s socially catastrophic. It is also not an unusual attitude: it is very similar to the way in which the study of the classical languages regarded itself (and note that the classics degree at Oxford is called Literae Humaniores, which is a name you can only understand if you know at least some Latin).

    It is also intellectually catastrophic, because it cuts off dialogue between mathematics and other human activities, and the stimulus which mathematics gets from other subjects is important (and, in my personal opinion, necessary in the long term). I myself, though I have a background in mathematics, have written quite a lot of philosophy (but not philosophy of mathematics), and have, now and again, attempted to describe what I do to mathematicians, to be met with a puzzled look and a remark like “too many words!”.

    It would be good if, out of this, a better way of doing mathematics could emerge: it is not that mathematics is perfectly OK, but is unfortunately only practised by white people. We should be more imaginative: how could, and should, mathematics, as a result of these challenges, change for the better?

    Graham White London

    On Tue, Jun 23, 2020 at 5:03 AM Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris wrote:

    > mathematicswithoutapologies posted: ” If a disease like Covid-19 could > push higher education to the brink of collapse, perhaps something is rotten > in the system. This is what we should be addressing. (Cinzia Arruzza, > Chronicle of Higher Education) Mathematics is deeply democratic. Yo” >

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    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      I’m familiar with the attitude, but I haven’t encountered it since graduate school, and I can’t think of any books about mathematics that explicitly promote the attitude. It’s probably fairly commonplace to believe that whatever you have chosen to do, assuming it was your choice, is superior to any of the alternatives. I’d be interested to see a comparative study among professions, both in expressions by individuals and in texts.

      The current crisis has reminded mathematicians that we are not considered essential workers. That should be cause for reflection.

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  2. Pingback: Global warming equations in the Paris metro | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  3. Pingback: Can mathematics be antiracist? Part II | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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