What does anti-racism in mathematics look like?

This question is on the front of my mind and is followed by how is anti-racism in mathematics practiced? The differences in how members of underrepresented groups, especially those who identify as Black and African American, are treated in the mathematical community, and our society as a whole is glaring. Protests condemning the murders by the hand of the police of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor has led mathematicians to ask professional organizations and institutions to take a stand. In particular, through concrete action and by building better support structures to address the many ways systemic racism plays a role in our community.

First and foremost, one must acknowledge that mathematics is part of a societal system that is inherently racist. In this post, I want to share some of the resources that have helped me reflect on how to grow as a better ally, to understand how organizations and institutions promote racism, and what actions could/should we be taking to dismantle racism as a community. There are several resources out there that I encourage you to share and engage with, these are just a few.

Back in January, Dr. Tian An Wong asked can mathematics be anti-racist? in the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog, he concludes,

“Nonetheless, one thing is clear: if mathematics is political (and also racial and gendered), then we must be on the side of justice, whatever that may look like. In other words, if mathematics can be antiracist, then it ought to be.[…] I don’t pretend to have the answers to the questions I am asking. This small sampling suggests a handful of possibilities for mathematics as, say, an intersectional, anti-racist, and class-consciously feminist enterprise. In any case, if we can agree that mathematics can operate as whiteness, then we have a moral duty to ask how mathematics might be otherwise. There is much work left to do. With the strength of our combined mathematical creativity, what might we come up with if we dared to imagine?”

What does anti-racist mathematics look like? And, how is anti-racist mathematics practiced? It is our responsibility to make sure that these questions do not become a passing trend but the foundation in which we build our community.  In The Aperiodical, Samuel Hansen shares Resources for Anti-Racism and Social Justice in the Mathematical Sciences, a definition of anti-racist from Ibram X Kendi, author of How to be Anti-Racist and This is what anti-racist America would look like. How do we get there?. 

“There is no such thing as a “not-racist” policy, idea, or person. Just an old-fashioned racist in a newfound denial. All policies, ideas, and people are either being racist or antiracist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity. Racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. A racist is supporting racist policy or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is supporting antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea. A racist or antiracist is not who we are, but what we are doing at the moment.” – This is what an antiracist America would look like. How do we get there? by Ibram X Kendi.

In their post, they lists many of the resources that have been shared in social media including the statements of support to the Black Lives Matters movement by organizations, readings, list of anti-racist mutual aid projects you can donate to, organizations and projects focused primarily on the mathematical sciences you can become a member of, or otherwise support and sponsor, and actions you can take, scaffolded anti-racist resources, among others. For example, you can support the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), as mentioned in the statement of support of the Black Lives Matter movement, their organization has made a priority promoting the excellence and mathematical development of all underrepresented minorities.

“NAM was founded in 1969, one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked widespread protests throughout the nation, similar to the ones we are seeing today. Indeed, NAM’s founding was a direct result of the marginalization of black people within the professional mathematics community, which then and now serves as a microcosm of the society in which we live. Over 50 years since NAM’s founding, despite the lessons of the civil rights movement, we still see systemic racial inequities in education, economic prosperity, criminal justice, and public health. Today, it should be clear to us all that the consequence of ignoring these racial inequities is dire.” –  NAM’s Statement on the Death of George Floyd

On June 10th, there was a call join the Strike for Black Lives. In the post, #ShutDownMath in the inclusion/exclusion blog makes the great point that in these we must avoid ally theater and focus on the actions that will tackle systemic racism in mathematics. 

“So yes, go to Black Lives Matter protests, donate to bail funds for protestors, use hashtags to express your outrage at police brutality, but be prepared to commit for the long haul. Donate to NAM (or better yet, get your department to become a departmental member!), donate to Mathematically Gifted and Black, donate to Data 4 Black Lives. Get your department to read anti-racism books. Design your classroom around rehumanizing principles that center your Black students. Change your hiring practices. Think about how you may be complicit in gate-keeping by accepting the status quo. And given that the current national focus is on the police state and how it’s implicated in the murder of Black people, demand that your colleagues stop contributing to the development of algorithms of oppression. Demand that we stop rewarding work that supports policing, inequality, and surveillance. Be intentional and mindful about mentoring graduate students. Read this letter in its entirety. And then do something.”

We can hold conferences, panels, read, and discuss as we acknowledge this conversation is long overdue. Our community is in dire need of action at all levels. For example, a group of mathematicians has urged the community (and professional organizations) to stop using predictive-policing algorithms and other models. As discussed in the Nature article, Mathematicians urge colleagues to boycott police work in wake of killings, this is due to the widely documented disparities on “how the US law-enforcement agencies treat people of different races and ethnicities”. Predictive policing, a tool aimed at stopping crime before it occurs, is only one of many ways mathematics can promote racism through algorithmic oppression. As mentioned by one of the coauthors of the letter, Dr. Jayadev Athreya,

“In recent years, mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists have been developing algorithms that crunch large amounts of data and claim to help police reduce crime — for instance, by suggesting where crime is most likely to occur and focusing more resources in those areas. Software-based on such algorithms is in use in police departments across the United States, although how many is unclear. Its effectiveness is contested by many.

But “given the structural racism and brutality in US policing, we do not believe that mathematicians should be collaborating with police departments in this manner”, the mathematicians write in the letter. “It is simply too easy to create a ‘scientific’ veneer for racism.”

While exploring resources on Twitter, I discovered an initiative aimed at department chairs to brainstorm and share ideas on how departments can become anti-racist places for the community. You can participate and look at the resources provided at Academics for Black Survival and Wellness (June 19 – June 25) which was organized by a group of Black counseling psychologists and their colleagues who practice Black allyship.  Also, you can sign-up to join Math Chairs for Racial Justice by June 23, and find a brief description below.

“Over the next two months, we will be gathering in small groups to read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. Weekly discussions (starting as soon as possible) will give you space to brainstorm how you might work to make your department an anti-racist place – a community that is not just open to all people, but one that actively supports and empowers students, faculty, and staff from groups historically underserved by the mathematics community. All discussions will be facilitated by mathematicians with experience tackling issues of racial justice in mathematics.”

In the field of math education, which has a long history with tackling and understanding racism in the classroom, a recent article by principal Pirette McKamey. In What Anti-racist Teachers Do Differently, McKamey emphasizes that, 

“Anti-racist teachers take black students seriously. They create a curriculum with black students in mind, and they carefully read students’ work to understand what they are expressing.[…] To fight against systemic racism means to buck norms. Educators at every level must be willing to be uncomfortable in their struggle for black students, recognizing students’ power and feeding it by honoring their many contributions to our schools. Teachers need to insist on using their own power to consistently reveal and examine their practice, and seek input from black stakeholders; they must invite black parents to the table, listen to their concerns and ideas, and act on them.”

In a lot of ways, this thinking should be adopted beyond K-12 and into higher educations institutions as well. A lot of the resources I shared start or end with an acknowledgment that we must learn, we must do better, we must grow. This is a process that has been happening in subsets of our community but it must become part of the bigger narrative of who the mathematics community is and strives to be. I wanted to end this post with a quote from the book ‘So You Want to Talk about Race’ by  Ijeoma Oluo.  Join the conversations, follow and listen to diverse voices of Black mathematicians, join the fight to make mathematics an anti-racist place for all, and when you do remember: it is the system of racism that we must fight.

“Ask yourself: Am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better? Conversations about racism should never be about winning. This battle is too important to be so simplified. You are in this to share, and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better. You are not trying to score points, and victory will rarely look like your opponent conceding defeat and vowing to never argue with you again. Because your opponent isn’t a person, it’s the system of racism that often shows up in the words and actions of other people.”

Do you have suggestions of topics or blogs you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ).


About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @MissVRiveraQ.
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