All we can do here is think critically about our personal lives, our culture, and the places where we live and work and consider how we might make them more equitable—from making meaningful efforts to hire, admit, or represent the historically underrepresented to establishing norms that ensure they can be heard and respected. (, The New Republic, July 6, 2020)
A few weeks ago I promised to continue the previous post, which described two alternative visions of anti-racist mathematics, which can be described briefly, but in reverse order, as:
(b) “To change mathematics itself” — presumably including the content of mathematics, and not just racist practices and bad attitudes — “so that it actually serves Black and Indigenous communities” and at any rate does not “cause irreparable harm.”
(a) “Business as usual” as far as content is concerned, but with more Black people, along the lines suggested by John Rice in The Atlantic, which I quote again:
(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.
I’ve spent much of the last two weeks puzzling over what option (b) entails. Here I should acknowledge belatedly that the title of this three-part post was already used, before COVID, before George Floyd was murdered, by Tian An on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog. The question in the middle of An’s essay
what kind of “pure” mathematics might be useful for antiracist mathematics?
bears on option (b) but only as interpreted by the word “useful”; it does not address the contents or the forms of reasoning or the underlying conceptual structures that compose what is currently understood as pure mathematics.
This is not the first time I’ve come up short when trying to imagine a thorough metaphysical transformation of algebra, or even the simpler task of replacing the standard introductory sequence in the training of a pure mathematician — abstract algebra, various kinds of analysis, differential geometry, topology — with something different. James Baldwin warns that the challenge is not to be taken lightly:
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. (James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation“)
At the height of the Science Wars authors called the very notion of scientific objectivity into question and treated it as a form of domination, a convenient alibi for racist, sexist, and neo-colonialist power relations, or at the very least an unwarranted claim on university resources. Very few of these authors wrote about mathematics — this is probably why mathematicians’ memories of the Science Wars usually involve French philosophers. The main text of the time that dealt with mathematics is contained on pp. 48-52 of Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism. The arguments are worth reading for their helpful reminder that the meanings of mathematics are not immutable. But they are of little help in imagining how one might “change mathematics itself,” and that’s because Harding was trained as an analytic philosopher, and as such is subject to the professional confusion between the mathematics practiced by mathematicians and the Mathematics that exists only as a topic for speculation by philosophers. So when she writes “no conceptual system can provide the justificatory grounds for itself,” she is denying the possibility of precisely one of the main kinds of Apologies that MWA dismisses as irrelevant to the concerns of practicing mathematicians (except, of course, during the brief period of the Foundations Crisis which is when analytic philosophy and mathematics last engaged in fruitful exchange).
The logic of that last sentence is rather convoluted, so if you read it quickly you probably missed the point. In fact, if you believe that mathematics has a special duty to justify itself then you disagree with the main thrust of MWA. This first epigraph to an influential text by Rochelle Gutiérrez, entitled Living Mathematx, is closer to the mark than the philosopher’s concern with “justificatory grounds”:
We need to be constantly considering the forms of mathematics and what they seek to deal with. As society presents new demands, new technologies, new possibilities, we must ask ourselves whether our current version of mathematics is adequate for dealing with the ignorance that we have.
The allusion to the “current version of mathematics” is a gesture (nearly 10 years old) in the direction of option (b). But the author of MWA is uncomfortable with the vision of mathematics as a short-order cook to which “society presents… demands,” not least because “society” doesn’t speak with a single voice — chapter 10 of MWA invites readers to draw their own conclusions about the “demands” of funding agencies, for example. Anyway, once we have agreed that “society” is (among many other things) racist, or at least is not spontaneously and effectively anti-racist, then we are entitled to treat its spontaneous “demands” with a good deal of caution.
I can tell I’m going to have to return to option (b) and its “demand” for a transformed mathematics, but if I continue to follow this particular stream of consciousness I’ll never get back to the dreary and dispiriting mechanics of the hiring process, which is what we’ll need to understand if we’re going to disregard Hazel B. Carby’s warning, in her chapter in the book Identity Politics in the Women’s Movement, about the “contradictory nature of the Black presence in the academy”:
Do existing power relations remain intact? Are the politics of difference effective in making visible women of color while rendering invisible the politics of exploitation?
and fall back on option (a). Anyway, maybe the creation of this Task Force by the AMS, whose stated goals are to
help the mathematical community understand the historical role of the AMS in racial discrimination; and
consider and recommend actions addressing the impact of discrimination and inequities to the AMS Council and Board of Trustees.
already counts as a step toward transforming mathematics as required by option (b).
The AMS will inevitably have its role to play in either option, because the composition of mathematics departments in North America will be mediated for the foreseeable future by MathJobs, the AMS website that provides a unifying structure for the job market. (In the absence of a social revolution, jobs will continue to be allocated by a market.) And I was planning to devote most of this post to an analysis of how using MathJobs may or (more likely) may not help mathematics become antiracist. But once again this post has gone on too long. So I will have to sign off before getting to the point; and I promise that I will not allow myself to be distracted in Part III from the discussion of option (a) and the hiring process.