Amplifying Excellence

I wanted to amplify some recent and ongoing excellent work and news!

 

Mathematically Gifted & Black

Mathematically Gifted & Black (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/) continues to share exceptional profiles of mathematicians every day this month. MG&B is organized by Dr. Erica Graham, Dr. Raegan Higgins, Dr. Candice Price, and Dr. Shelby Wilson.

You can follow MG&B on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also contribute to their effort to support the next generation of under-represented minorities in mathematics (https://mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/support/).

 

A profile of Dr. William Claytor

In late January, Dr. Ranthony A.C. Edmonds authored and shared a Twitter thread about Dr. William S Claytor. As many others have noted, Dr. Edmonds’s thread is expertly researched and written. Dr. Claytor was “an outstanding black mathematician” who “would have greatly benefited benefited consistent support of the mathematical community”. And as others have noted, Dr. Claytor is obviously worthy of having a fellowship named in his honor.

 

 

 

The Hesabu Circle

Dr. Kagba Suaray “wanted to create a space for the Black community to connect with each other and meet others with a shared interest in math”, so he joined with Robin Wilson, Edray Goins, Kyndall Brown, Rob Rubalcaba, Pamela Lewis, Micki Clowney, and Kekai Bryant to create the Hesabu Circle, “named after the Kiswahili word for mathematics”. As described in the Facebook group, the Hesabu Circle is a space created by black mathematicians & educators where black students “from pre-K to post-doc” can connect with each other & faculty, and rediscover our innate excellence in the mathematical sciences.

You can follow the Hesabu Circle on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And you can read more from Dr. Suaray in recent articles from CSULB and a Long Beach community paper.

 

New NAM Leadership

The National Association of Mathematicians has recently had an election for President. I want to thank Dr. Edray Goins for his years of service, and Dr. Leona Harris for her work as Interim President, and I’d like to congratulate Dr. Omayra Ortega as the new President!

You can follow NAM on Facebook and Twitter. You can join NAM as an individual or institution and donate to NAM’s efforts.

Posted in history of mathematics, mathematics experiences, minorities in math, racism | Leave a comment

The mathjob market is bad. But what else is new? A 2020 retrospective

Let me start by saying that it’s no news to anyone that the pandemic has affected the academic job market. At the same time, it’s nice to have some data to back up that feeling of doom. Especially for someone like me, who had been on the job market every year between 2015 and 2019 (would not recommend, in case you were wondering), I constantly heard that the job market was tough. But if it’s tough every year, what’s the difference?

In early October 2020, Science reported about a 70% drop in US job postings on their job board, a pretty drastic number. On the other hand, since US math jobs appear primarily on mathjobs.org, and plus the fact that the economy has made an impressive (and frankly, unequal) recovery since the initial crash in March 2020, maybe it’s worth taking a closer look at how the pandemic is affecting math jobs.

So how bad was the 2020 mathjob market?

Going into 2020, the number of graduating PhDs in Mathematics, Statistics, and Biostatistics had been steadily on the rise, a number that the AMS tracks very well.

New Mathematics, Statistics, and Biostatistics PhDsOn the other hand, the number of jobs posted appeared to be relatively stagnant, between 2013 and 2017, as documented by the AMS again,after which time there was a slow rise in job postings on mathjobs.org, as the graph below shows. When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, freezing the job market, we saw an initial decrease in job postings (and not to mention a drop in employment which isn’t measured here). Continue reading

Posted in cultural pressure in academia, equity, graduate school, minorities in math | 2 Comments

What is… a four-part apology?

Last week, the AMS announced the “Fellowship for a Black Mathematician”. If you were on Twitter this past weekend, you are probably aware of the outcry that ensued. In return, there were many mea culpas, some half apologies, a few great apologies, a lot of explanations for what happened and how, and a lot of hurt all around. This all got me thinking about apologies.  Continue reading

Posted in apologies, equity, social justice | Leave a comment

Oh my heart

You’ve broken my heart for the last time.

That’s what I want to tell white America, but I know it’s not true. My heart will be broken by you over and over and over again before I die.

You’ve broken my heart for the last time.

That’s what I want to tell academia, but that will only be true if I quit (maybe), and on that I am still undecided.

What happens when people are given an enemy?

They show up armed.

Armed Militia at the Michigan State Capitol April 30, 2020
Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

Whether the enemy is a box of ballots, a Congress tasked with counting, a police officer who actually wants to protect, or human beings seeking equity after generations of trauma and loss. 

In early 2008 I was swept up in the grassroots movement sparked by the Obama campaign. His message of hope and change resonated with me in a way that will probably never happen again. One of his messages was that we are all basically the same. We may have ended up on different sides of certain politicized debates, but there’s more that unites us than divides us.

Well, with all due respect to my younger self, we cannot all be basically the same.

You’ve broken my heart, oh my heart, never for the last time, with your fear and your walls and your refusal to tie your freedom to mine.

Person wearing “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie at Capitol Hill, Jan 6, 2021
Photo credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP Images

No. You may not stand next to me.

The difference between self-centered cynicism and vulnerable compassion may seem small or academic, but the ramifications are too huge to sidestep with calls for unity.

Those who continue to refuse to hear what #BlackLivesMatter and abolition are all about will probably be shocked to learn that today’s broken heart, tear streaks, and inability to eat are the result of reading and watching violence against police officers attempting to protect the Capitol and its occupants from a violent coup.

On January 6th, 2021 the Capitol Police were not the aggressors, despite knowing that angry people were flying to DC for a huge protest against what Congress was about to do. That those people were not met with riot gear speaks to the very double standards #BLM activists protest. There’s a lot we still don’t know about what happened and why, but videos and testimonials have come out painting a much darker, more violent image than what I saw shared on social media when I was supposed to be attending a JMM session.

AMS MAA Joint Statement of thoughts and prayers

I need you to know that the fascist, anti-democratic, racist nature of the rage at the Capitol taints everything it touches. I need you to know that it matters whether you are angry at a cop because they are a source of terror or because they are protecting democracy. You can tell it matters because this crowd held Blue Lives Matter flags while beating a (white) officer to death.

Capitol Hill, Jan 6, 2021
Photo: Zuma press / eyevine

I need you to know that there’s a difference between wanting justice and wanting what you think someone owes you personally.  

I can’t eat because I keep thinking about the Black officer who is a part of a racist system but on this day was a human being facing a throng of rage and it was his job to protect the Capitol, and the people who were supposed to support him weren’t there. The system he bought into wasn’t there to back him up. He was betrayed by white colleagues. He was spit on and called racial slurs by out-of-town officers. And when it was over, he was alive, and he cried and yelled for all to hear. 

Why should that affect me so? Why bring this to the attention of the math community? (Aside from the fact that Every Single Time I can’t do research because of white supremacy I believe I have the right to take up white mathematicians’ time with it.) Perhaps it is because I am also part of a racist system.

Academia.

And trying to abide by the system didn’t protect me. And being a good colleague doesn’t protect me. And now that I’ve cried, I need to yell for all to hear.

As I watch the slow reckoning (maybe) unfold, seeing who sides with sedition and who sides democracy, I keep thinking about how much those people really just hate Black folks. Those insurgents were as ugly, as angry, as disrespectful, as arrogant, as dangerous as anything I’ve seen and all for a widely discredited failed leader. Yet they see Black and Brown and Queer communities standing up in righteous anger (with medics, and water, and music) and they see something to step on, to squash. It isn’t rational. “We’re doing this for you” said a Blue Lives Matter rioter while assaulting a cop. 

That Black officer and I are on two different sides of a certain politicized debate but we have a common heartache—that feeling when you realize they don’t see you. You aren’t a friend or colleague or officer of the law anymore, you are a threat. And they would rather beat you down than be vulnerable and interrogate their own violent tendencies. We share the heartache that comes with investing in a system you’re told will protect you, only to find the opposite is true. We share the need to do what we think is right, even if it benefits our oppressors, even if our colleagues will never understand how much it hurts.

“LET EMPATHY BE YOUR NEW NORMAL” sign
White Coats for Black Lives, June 20, 2020, Central Park, NY,
Photograph: Maria Khrenova/Tass

We are not basically all the same, but the difference is not in what we look like, whether or with whom we fall in love, or which lands our ancestors most connected with; the difference is a choice to fully embrace all of humanity, or to do anything less. Because anything less than full acceptance of all that humankind has to offer leaves you open to believing lies tailored to make you see enemies where you could have seen potential allies. We are currently bearing witness to the fatal cost even one big lie can bring.

Contemplating how a big lie coupled with insecurity (economic or otherwise) can poison someone, I turn my mind to mathematics and to academia.

The big lie is meritocracy, the enemy is diversity, the weapon varies. 

For some time I’ve been wrestling with my place, not in academia, but in working towards a just world. I never thought I would devote so much of myself to such a cause but I need my heart to stop breaking. 

The purpose of research, generally speaking, is to further human knowledge. We must ask, though, to whose benefit? Certainly we don’t all benefit equally (or at all) from such applications of our work as predictive policing and surveillance. Furthermore the practices and norms of academia are in no way required for expanding our knowledge. If we fully embrace all that humankind has to offer, and look to the history of what gets called academic research, we will readily find our system wanting.

August 24, 2020 @themarkup

If participating in academic research makes me complicit in an oppressive hierarchy which continues to promote racism, sexism, and settler colonialism (along with all the other oppressions), at least I am an educator, you might say.

Again I ask to whose benefit?

If the people in my own community do not benefit from my PhD, who does? And if the career path of academia prevents me from being in a community I know, who benefits? If we fully embrace all that humankind has to offer, it is clear that at every level in every location the American system of education is failing, and that meritocracy is a fantasy. While college professors may be quick to say it’s too late by the time kids are college age, we can’t forget how many bad decisions at each level of a child’s life is based on teachers’ and parents’ perceptions of college admissions. Colleges and universities can change this. Privileged universities can take the lead.

When I look to the history and I look at the present, I have an incredibly hard time justifying academia on anything other than legacy grounds (which, I shouldn’t have to tell you, are no grounds at all). I must admit to be an abolitionist, but abolition does not mean just living the same life but without prisons or, in this case, universities. It means trying to imagine what a world could be like without policing, detention, and in this case without financially backed hierarchies lording over who learns what and how. 

I don’t know how we do it, but I’m tired of playing the part Black colleague/committee member/panelist whose voice will be silenced or amplified depending on the audience but who is ultimately trying to save a system that is fundamentally oppressive. To be clear, nobody was on the side of Black people on January 6th. The fascist attack had me praying for Law and Order to save Democracy, but it’s a democracy that has always taken me for granted.

Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It is time to know with whom you align yourself. It is time to recognize those who are one scare away from justifying, if not outright committing, violence against us. I need you to recognize the danger in the tenured white man prof who says he feels “this department has been good for women” while explaining why we shouldn’t hire one. Before someone gets hurt, not after. It’s hard to break out of the socially acceptable position of peacekeeper. It’s hard to look behind the veneer of someone who hoards power without much obvious effort. You must, though. Somehow. Because honestly the weakness of those who are on my side but say nothing hurts more than the overt racism. 

Soon the Trump nightmare will be over, they say, but thousands will still die daily of covid, most of the insurrectionists will still have their jobs, and the country will continue to offer only piecemeal, conditional, risk-free support to Black people. 

The End.

 

Some links:

https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/07/us/police-response-black-lives-matter-protest-us-capitol/index.html

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmanuelfelton/black-capitol-police-racism-mob

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55623752

https://www.propublica.org/article/no-one-took-us-seriously-black-cops-warned-about-racist-capitol-police-officers-for-years

https://abolitionjournal.org/frontpage/

https://time.com/5886348/report-peaceful-protests/

Posted in Black Lives Matter, equity, ethics, joint mathematics meetings, policing, racism, social justice | Leave a comment

Round-Up of JMM 2021 Sessions on Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice

The 2021 Joint Meetings of the Mathematical Societies (JMM) will be held virtually January 6-9. Continuing our tradition, this post highlights events at this virtual meeting related to diversity, equity, and justice. In particular, I built the list below be reading the program and noting invited presentations and sessions having either titles indicated that some aspect of diversity/equity/justice would be the focus of the talk or sponsorship by group including NAM, AWM, Spectra & Math Alliance.

Please note that this list will not be comprehensive. I have not looked within sessions for individual talks, and I certainly hope that we continue to #DisruptJMM by discussing these issues across the whole program. If you catch a session that I missed, you are welcome to comment about it below or message me; please forgive me for what I have missed or typos I have introduced.

I have recently learned that this kind of list grows has a past debt to Bill Hawkins, who would distribute a similar list in person at conferences.

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Queering Mathematics

First: Trans people are people who deserve to have their identities respected and validated and to live without fear. On this Trans Day of Remembrance #TDoR2020, we mourn those who have died from transphobic violence. As a broader queer community, we remember that this violence disproportionately impacts trans women of color, a group who have also led many of the efforts to secure human rights for us all.

I am proud to have participated with Ron Buckmire, Emily Riehl, Juliette Bruce, Anthony Bonato, and Robin Gaudreau in LGBTQ+Math Day (virtually) at the Fields Institute this week. An event like this contributes to the visibility of queer people and our accomplices/allies, and a major theme of our conversation was the fact that each of us, by virtue of existing, queered spaces by being in them, from the rugby pitch to mathematics conferences. But for this post, I’d like to reflect on the ways that I saw our queer identities influencing our mathematics.

Ron Buckmire kicked off the event with a talk entitled “Different Differences”. He started by telling us about some of his identities, which developed into an observation that our community treats some identities like race and gender as “standard” differences and often ignores others, like his gay and Caribbean identities. Ron reminded us that the data about representation in the higher education mathematics are sparse (and shameful) for the “standard” differences and often completely absent for the “different” differences. But Ron’s title also applies to the overview he gave of his research. Using calculus-based methods, we describe continuous change using a limit of an average rate of change, and this process can be discretized in multiple ways. Discretizing the most famous definition of a derivative leads to what is often called a forward difference, but those of who have taught calculus will be familiar with versions that could be called backward or center differences, corresponding to various ways to draw secant lines to continuous curves near a point.

Ron’s observation was that these three approaches all implicitly assume that the width of the approximations, h, will approach 0 linearly. In what I saw as the first example of queering mathematics in the session, Ron demonstrated how we can reject this assumption (i) by replacing the role of h with more interesting functions that still approach zero on the order of h to get “non-standard differences, which he would like to name Mickems differences, after Ron Mickems, and (ii) by taking non-local discretizations, which felt to me like a radical reorganization of an approach to discrete difference modeling.

Next, Emily Riehl talked about “Contractibility as Uniqueness”, which she explicitly framed as “queering uniqueness”. Emily’s work is in category theory, a subfield that I see as overtly working to reconsider and rebuild the foundations of mathematics, and this talk showed how we might think of that agenda as a queer one. Emily started from the idea of the first fundamental group of a topological space, which is a group made of all loops at a base point in the space with the (associative) operation of composition (or concatenation). If we loosen the restriction that the paths be loops, allowing them to start and end at different points, we lose the ability to compose an arbitrary pair elements, so Emily’s core question became: when it is possible to compose them, how unique is that composition? Is it unique enough for associativity? She built a tetrahedron representing a homotopy that answers this question affirmatively, but she wanted to step back even further. Uniqueness can be quantified as: there exists an x such that, for all y, x=y. Interpreting this from a categorical perspective, this became the sum over all x of the product of all y of the set of proofs that x=y, where sum and product are adjoints of the pull-back, and uniqueness because the observation that this is a contractible space, which can be proved without referencing the base topological space. I am personally drawn in powerfully by this kind of work in category theory, which reimagines the foundations of what had seemed necessary in mathematics and logic in ways that feel analogous to the work of reimagining the messages of what had seemed necessary in society for gender and sexuality.

Third, Juliette Bruce told us about “Computing Syzygies”. This is a classical subfield that owes a lot to Emmy Noether, but Juliette’s overview showed how there is still so much we don’t know about the relationships between monomials! In light of the themes of queering mathematics above, one particular move by Juliette stood out to me. Her research has made progress in understanding syzygies by bringing tools from applied mathematics for computing with enormous matrices to bear on what had previously been viewed as a classical, abstract problem. While it might be a bit of a stretch from the talk, I see this as Juliette rejecting the false binary of abstract and applied mathematics. I was pulled into algebraic geometry as a graduate student because I like the double vision of seeing objects from both algebraic and geometric perspectives, and I’ve long felt that the most exciting mathematics brings this kind of binary-rejecting double vision to approach problems from new directions. And while we didn’t get to hear about Robin’s work during this event, in a later communication they offered a sketch of a similar interpretation of some of their work in virtual knot theory in which some functions require or break a binary.

The final presenter, Anthony Bonato, told us about “Out, Proud, and Combinatorial: A gay mathematician’s journey”. He told us about his efforts to be an out, proud, mathematician as well as the challenging ways environments have resisted these efforts. In his overview of his work, he described efforts that overlap abstract and applied mathematics, similar to Juliette, in complex network analysis. He studies the hidden geometry behind complex networks, such as social networks, showing how complex social networks often reduce to a small number of characteristics (the dimensions in this hidden geometry). I might be reaching to claim this as queering the mathematics, but this hidden geometry certainly reminds me of Ron’s different differences and my own experiences learning to see implicit social structures that my non-queer peers could safely ignore. Anthony also turned the connection I’m making in reverse, perhaps mathing queerness, stating his axioms for mathematics and diversity/equity/inclusion work that remind me of Federico Ardila’s axioms. In both situations, mathematicians are using the disciplinary concept of an axiom to structure their approach to justice.

My own work is also inspired by my experiences as a queer person. I never fit into the implicit expectations for gender or sexuality as a young person, and that misalignment made me hyper aware of the systems that guided and structured human activity in general. In mathematics, this awareness served me well: I spent my time asking why we did what we were doing and how we knew the things we claimed to know. More recently, I have come to see that I was lucky to happen into those habits in mathematics, buttressed by my other privileges. I see how students, especially students of color, who ask similar kinds of critical questions are often driven out of mathematics when people assert that there is nothing to ask, that mathematics is just “pure” truth that they must accept. And even those who aren’t driven away are forced to experience mathematics as a form of authoritarianism. As a teacher educator, I work on helping teachers to critique, perhaps to queer, mathematics so that they in turn can build classrooms that don’t recreate this history of violence in the name of mathematics. In response to a comment I made on the panel, a participant offered the amalgamated word inqueery, on which I’m going to keep reflecting.

Queerness has been my entryway into understanding exclusion, but queering mathematics will not be enough, just as spaces dominated by cisgender gay men can sometimes be racist and toxic in other ways. The game historically called “cops and robbers” is an example of how dangerous ideas related to white supremacy and the police can subtly pervade even queer mathematics spaces.

Thank you for coming with me as I reflected on the ways that Ron asked us to queer our assumptions, Emily to queer our foundations, Juliette to queer our methods, and Anthony to queer our results. These talks will appear shortly on the Fields Institute’s YouTube channel, and I hope watching them through this lens encourages you to help further queer mathematics.

Posted in conferences, LGBTQ+ | Leave a comment

Building Gender and Sexuality Allyship in the Mathematics Community

Guest Authors:

Student Authors: Alexander Asemota, Kevin Harris, Quiyana Murphy

Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Bianca Thompson, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

This summer, we participated in Math SWAGGER, a virtual workshop for underrepresented graduate students who are pursuing PhDs in the mathematical sciences. During the Gender and Sexuality session, we built a framework to reflect on how gender and sexuality intersect with our mathematical identity and our experiences within the mathematical community. To this end, we were split into subgroups by the gender participants identified the most with and talked about the spectrum of gender and sexuality, the privilege and barriers you may face depending on your identity, and ways to create inclusive environments through proactive allyship. In this article, we will share some of the lessons learned.

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Towards a Mathematics Beyond Police and Prisons

Guest post by The Just Mathematics Collective

The October 2020 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society contained an open letter calling on the mathematics community to boycott collaborations with police and demanding, in particular, that we stop providing law enforcement with the mathematical technology they increasingly rely upon to terrorize Black and brown poor and working class people. The letter mentions the deeply racist feedback loops that predictive policing creates, and points out that predictive algorithms grant the police an unearned veneer of scientific legitimacy. 

Alongside the open letter, the AMS published three other letters: one by Ingrid Daubechies, Ezra Miller, and Cynthia Rudin; another by Daniel Krashen, who was also given space to write a separate article expounding on his opinion; and the third by Sol Garfunkel. The arguments in these letters vary, but all oppose the boycott in spirit. 

We, the Just Mathematics Collective (JMC), are a collective of mathematicians formed during the 2020 Black Lives Matter rebellion. Our goal is to shift the mathematics community towards justice via anti-racism, anti-militarism, and solidarity with the Global South. We acknowledge the role that mathematics plays in sustaining injustice, and the potential it has for creating a freer world built on mutual care and collaboration. 

As such, the JMC wholeheartedly supports the boycott and the purpose of this statement is to respond to these three letters and to Daniel Krashen’s article. [1]

There are JMC members who helped co author the “boycott letter”, but there is no containment in either direction. The boycott letter predates the JMC and the JMC takes specific political stances that are not articulated in the boycott letter, and not necessarily shared by the signatories of the boycott letter. As we will explain, we support the call for a boycott for reasons that go beyond the original letter’s arguments.

While we agree with the claims made in the call for a boycott regarding the racist feedback loops inherent to predictive policing algorithms, our opposition to collaboration with police does not rely on problems with specific algorithms and instead rests on a more fundamental contention:

The role of the police in US society is to protect racial capitalism with coercion and violence.  Thus, even if it was possible to create a predictive policing algorithm 100% free of racial bias, providing such an algorithm to the police would constitute an act of oppression.

Therefore, we will not rehash arguments summarized by the authors of the boycott letter about the specific effects of these algorithms. 

We emphasise that our position is political, as is any position on the matter of collaboration with police, whether or not that is made explicit. The JMC arrived at our stance not by finding a mathematical error in the literature on predictive policing algorithms. Our position rests in the political tradition of abolition and an understanding of the historical and present role of the police in maintaining unjust and racist structures of political and economic power.

In his article, Krashen claims that “police patrolling will not simply end.”  With these few short words, Krashen dismisses decades of political organizing and theorizing by workers, prisoners, and Black feminist thinkers who have dedicated their lives to building a world in which police patrolling will indeed end.  No one expects this will happen “simply”, but a major obstruction to its happening at all is an unimaginative collective assumption that it is impossible.

All three of the letters (as well as Krashen’s article) are rife with such assumptions — for instance, that the status quo of throwing people in cages as a means of addressing social problems is a necessary aspect of human society. Crucially, the authors do not explicitly acknowledge that these are deeply political assumptions, and instead obscure their political assumptions with claims to scientific objectivity.

Unlike those advancing these disingenuous arguments, the JMC freely admits our subjectivity — what we state here are our political opinions and we do not pretend otherwise. We see a tendency in the mathematics community to characterise as “rationality” the practice of ignoring lived realities, historical facts, and moral and political questions; unlike some of our colleagues, we will not allude to our “objective analyses” and “logical insights” when making our arguments. Our stance derives from being humans observing actual social and material conditions; from seeing the impacts of prisons and police on our communities, friends, and family; and from engaging in the basic human practice of envisioning a more humane and just world. 

To help frame what follows, we list below some historical facts and political opinions that undergird our position.

  • Historical fact: The police in the US derive from slave patrols and private strike-breaking forces [2].  There is a direct, well-documented throughline from these origins to the modern day quasi-military forces on our streets [3], and a consistent pattern of collusion with white supremacist vigilantism, fascism, and the far-right [4].
  • Political opinion: The true purpose of policing is to preserve “social order”, racial capitalism, and patriarchy [5]. The many connections between the police and explicitly white supremacist groups and movements are no accident, but are in fact an inevitable consequence of the nature of police. Therefore the racism, classism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and general inhumanity that is endemic to modern policing cannot be reformed away. [6]
  • Historical fact: Prisons were introduced as a reform, as a means of moving away from gratuitous and unpopular capital/corporal punishment [7]. In the US, prisons have evolved from the paternalism of the early penitentiary and the horrors of the convict leasing system into a massive industrial complex in which prisoners — disproportionately Black and brown people — are treated as raw material [8].
  • Political opinion: The US legal system is set up to criminalize non-whiteness and poverty, and to subjugate Black and brown communities through physical violence (via the police, immigration enforcement, and the military), and through the restriction of movement and other basic human rights (via prisons, detention centers, and militarized border zones). In anything resembling its current form, it is incapable of delivering true justice or healing.
  • Historical fact: The US legal system has a long history of creating conditions in which sexual and other gender-based violence proliferates.  This includes the rampant sexual violence in US prisons [9] and immigration concentration camps [10], as well as the long, ongoing [11] history [12] of forced sterilizations and other eugenics practices [13]. It also includes the system’s tendency to neither investigate [14] nor prosecute [15] intimate partner violence.  Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women, children, and LGTBQIA+ people of color.
  • Political opinion: White supremacy is deeply intertwined with patriarchy [16].  To those in power, gender-based violence is a desirable feature of the legal system and the misogynistic [17] violence perpetrated in prisons is deeply connected to the misogynistic violence that exists more broadly in society [18]. The fact that all of this overwhelmingly affects communities of color is by design.  Abolishing the police and prisons is a fundamentally feminist objective, and patriarchy can not end without achieving it.
  • Historical fact: There is little evidence that policing and prisons have reduced social harms, or even that they have much of a reducing effect on the rate at which legally defined crimes are committed [19]. They have, however, sanctioned many physical and social harms and concentrated violence in specific locations from which there is no escape [20].
  • Political opinion: Criminalization is a weapon used by the state to buttress its repressive power, and crime a legal construct [21] controlled by the white supremacist state — should not be confused with harm. Neither policing nor prisons are compatible with an ethos of valuing human life over profits and property, and thus a commitment to humanity requires the abolition of both.  

We emphasize that when we make a distinction between “historical fact” and “political opinion”, we are not assigning more worth to one over the other. Many truths are considered opinion and valued less than fact (or erased altogether) by those in power merely because they represent experiences of oppressed people. We will not buy into this devaluation. On the contrary, we often cherish our opinions more dearly than historical fact, since it is ultimately opinion — informed by fact, experience, and feeling — that we use to calibrate our moral compasses and political aspirations. The italicized sentences at the end of each opinion above demonstrate this calibration in action. What we call facts are simply statements represented in the academic historical record for long enough that even the most elitist academics — those who dismiss the lived experiences of marginalized people when they do not appear in the pages of exalted journals — would be forced to admit are true. 

Guided by these truths, we now outline some of the assertions mentioned by Daubechies-Miller-Rudin and Krashen and respond point-by-point [22]

“To boycott all interaction between mathematics and police, without any stated demands or termination criteria, fails to recognize the positive potential of mathematics in contributing to whatever concept of law enforcement is envisioned by the movement” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response: There is no one concerted “movement.” As in any time of political turmoil, there are many voices, expressing many needs and political desires simultaneously. There is, however, a powerful contingency of everyday people, organizers, workers, thinkers, prisoners, and of course those at the intersections of several of these categories, who envision the complete non-existence of police. 

We ask the reader to imagine an extinct institution sufficiently heinous such that no engagement with it could possibly have a positive impact. For example, considering the origins of policing in slave patrols, imagine a proposal that scientists of the mid-nineteenth century outfit slave catchers with improved “technology” in an effort to make that practice somehow more humane. We hope the absurdity of this is clear, and we emphasize that such a proposal would have served a political purpose: putting an utterly unearned patina of humanity and legitimacy on the institution of chattel slavery. 

“When software developed from mathematical insights for use by law enforcement turns out to promote racist outcomes, it is irresponsible to launch a boycott, cutting short efforts to solve the problem.” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response: The fundamental problem is not that the software merely happens to promote racist outcomes; the problem is policing itself. The purpose of a boycott is not to disengage from the problem, but to begin finally engaging with it. We support the call for a boycott precisely out of our sense of professional responsibility as mathematicians. We would instead suggest that it is irresponsible to assume certain answers to basic political questions and then restrict our role to technical tinkering within the framework of those (in fact highly contestable) answers. 

“Instead of refusing our expertise, why not offer our services with increased fervor…?…Withdrawal is not the solution.” (Daubechies-Miller-Rudin)

JMC response:  The only sort of “withdrawal” proposed by the boycott is withdrawal from a position of complicity with a murderous institution. By boycotting, we engage with this issue on our own political terms. And we are committed to fighting for a future in which this quote ages extraordinarily badly. 

“…it is critical to realize who our allies are, and to come together in common cause and not pull apart. When we engage in personal attacks and in casting doubt on our colleagues…we risk the destruction of the atmosphere needed to move forward.” (Krashen, Response to the boycott) 

JMC response: We are accountable to our friends, our families, our broader extra-mathematical communities, working class people, prisoners, and others deemed disposable by American empire and racial capitalism. The JMC would be honored to be considered allies and accomplices to all such people. So on this point, we agree: it is critical that we realize who our allies are. On the other hand, we have no allegiance to fellow academicians who profit from the brutalization of Black and brown people by selling their expertise to the police. 

While the JMC has no issue with criticizing individuals when criticism is warranted, we are confused by this reaction to the call for boycott, as no individuals were explicitly targeted by the boycott letter. We recognize that an effective boycott can cause damage to finances and reputation, and to the mathematicians who are financially and intellectually invested in predictive policing, we say: we are not aware of any clause in the call for boycott that precludes your joining. We believe that everyone is capable of transformation and growth. 

“If mathematicians, scientists, and others don’t come together to help formulate algorithms about patrolling, we can do little to influence the potential bias the police can (and likely will) bring.” (Krashen) 

JMC response: We reject this claim as false, and also reject it as an insult to decades of organizing and community care that have taken place outside of hallowed academic halls. Mathematicians and scientists can have a tremendous impact on policing by joining the fight for abolition, led courageously by non-scientists and non-mathematicians (at least not in the professional sense). It is in this spirit that the JMC considers participation in the boycott to be a meaningful scientific and political contribution. If mathematicians are intent on designing algorithms related to patrolling, we would call on them to create open access technology for the people, perhaps to help them maintain safety in their communities, including safety from the police

“This is the time to engage with our colleagues, who have developed and refined their expertise to think deeply about these problems, and who have developed a dialogue with various social institutions” (Krashen)

JMC response: We find offensive the implication that someone who has developed a predictive policing algorithm should be considered an expert on prisons and policing on that basis alone. It is in fact far past time to engage with the real experts on policing and prisons: prisoners and formerly incarcerated people, Black and brown organizers who are leading the fight for abolition, and the working class people whose daily lives are affected in concrete ways by these oppressive systems. Even within the extremely narrow realm of academia, mathematicians who design policing algorithms can not claim the title of expert. This mantle belongs instead to our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities who have spent years thinking about the societal harms caused by policing, prisons, and overcriminalization, as well as the reasons these oppressive systems were created in the first place.  

 Our sense of morality does not come from having earned an advanced degree or from being deemed expert in a discipline. It comes from being human, from having human experiences, and from learning from the experiences of others. We therefore can not afford to take seriously the proposal that we leave the question of how to engage with the police up to the very people who have the most personally invested in ensuring that the relationship between mathematics and law enforcement remains fundamentally unchanged. We hope the reader can acknowledge the irony of chastising boycott as disengagement, while also suggesting that any mathematician who is not already working with the police should not play an engaged role in deciding whether these collaborations should even exist. 

Most of all, we hope our community sees past the shallow arguments made in opposition to the boycott of police collaboration. We look forward to a new culture in the mathematics community, in which issues of ethics and politics are honestly considered at every point of interface between mathematics and the broader community in which it is embedded. Mathematics should be for the people! And so long as we continue to use our training to empower institutions which aim to oppress and brutalize, it can not be. We can collectively build the power to shape our community and move towards a more just and free mathematics. How will you help to claim and exercise that power? 

——————————————————

In the spirit of Krashen’s advice to engage with and learn from those with genuine expertise, we conclude this statement by honoring on-the-ground organizing that has inspired us and that is happening in the cities and states where Daubechies-Miller-Rudin (North Carolina), Krashen (Georgia until recently, and now New Jersey), and the AMS headquarters (Rhode Island) are located. We ask our mathematical community to support these freedom fighters in any way it can: 

Black Workers for Justice  (North Carolina)

Southerners On New Ground (with chapters in several southern states, including Georgia)

Vietlead (Philadelphia and South Jersey) 

Direct Action for Rights and Equality  (Providence, Rhode Island) 

If these arguments resonated with you and you are interested in becoming involved with the JMC, you can reach out to us here: 

justmathematicscollective@autistici.org

 

Endnotes

  1. The boycott has been criticised as an inappropriate tactic — Daubechies-Miller-Rudin’s letter cites the lack of “specific demands” or “termination criteria”, but we find a boycott of the type advocated in the original letter to be tactically appropriate. It is true that sometimes boycotts ask people to withdraw their participation in some activity in an explicit way, until explicit conditions are met, at which point participation resumes. For example, customers of a business in a labour dispute with workers may withhold their business by, say, refusing to cross a picket line; in such cases, the boycotters have specific leverage and there are explicit “termination conditions”.  However, boycotts can also be used to express — and foment — community disapproval of some state of affairs even in cases where most participants do not have much direct leverage and where the notion of “termination conditions” makes no sense.  In such cases, the idea is to build cultural norms against some unacceptable activity. There can’t be termination criteria for the mathematical boycott of police collaboration, because there are no conditions under which it will be acceptable to collaborate with an illegitimate institution. Most of the boycott letter signatories are presumably at no risk of collaborating with police, but by signing, they have publicly expressed disapproval of an intolerable state of affairs and helped to prefigure a culture where oppressive uses of our expertise are less professionally acceptable. To that extent, the boycott is a useful political tactic.
  2. See e.g. P. Reichel: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=116023 and A. Vitale: https://www.vice.com/en/article/7kpvnb/end-of-policing-book-extract
  3. For a thorough account of this history and the current state of affairs, see Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7.
  4. Recent infiltration of American police by white supremacist and far-right groups is well documented in news media; see e.g. https://theintercept.com/2017/01/31/the-fbi-has-quietly-investigated-white-supremacist-infiltration-of-law-enforcement/ or https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report.  There is also considerable historical documentation of the relationship between formal policing and white supremacist vigilantism, and the process of replacement of racist vigilante violence by racist police violence during the 20th century (see e.g. Silvan Niedermeier’s The Colour of the Third Degree).
  5. See e.g. R. Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, or for a shorter and online accessible read, G. Potter’s The History of Policing in the United States
  6. This article by M. Kaba makes this point in more detail: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html
  7. This is again documented extensively. For example, Chapter 3 of A. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? contains a very useful account of the genesis of prisons.
  8. See e.g. A. Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison-Industrial Complex.
  9. See https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4881 for a government study on sexual violence in prisons.  Almost half of reported sexual assaults in prison are perpetrated by guards, see e.g. https://www.propublica.org/article/guards-may-be-responsible-for-half-of-prison-sexual-assaults. Sexual assaults are uniformly underreported (and it would stand to reason that this underreporting is even more dramatic when the perpetrator holds immense power over the victim, e.g. guards as perpetrators and inmates as victims), so undoubtedly these numbers should be higher.
  10. For a general discussion on the widespread nature of sexual assaults in DHS concentration camps, see https://theintercept.com/2018/04/11/immigration-detention-sexual-abuse-ice-dhs/ or https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/us/immigrant-children-sexual-abuse.html
  11. For an account of the current allegations against ICE concentration camps, see https://projectsouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/OIG-ICDC-Complaint-1.pdf
  12. For a brief summary of the history of forced sterilization by US law and immigration enforcement, see https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/forced-sterilization/
  13. For an in-depth discussion about the global history of the eugenics movement and its current successors—and the role that scientists play in defending and facilitating it—see A. Saini’s book Superior: The Return of Race Science.
  14. Less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions.  See e.g. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
  15. There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits lying in storage in US police departments, some dating back decades. For a general discussion, see https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/an-epidemic-of-disbelief/592807/
  16. For an introduction to the notion of intersectionality, see K. Crenshaw’s article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stanford Law Review 1241-99 (1991).
  17.   For the notion of misogyny that we have in mind here—the system which serves “to police and enforce” patriarchal norms—see e.g.  K. Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.
  18. See e.g. A. Davis’ article Public Imprisonment and Private Violence: Reflections on the Hidden Punishment of Women in the edited volume Frontline Feminism, ed. M. Waller and J. Rycenga.  See also K. Crenshaw’s article From Private Violence to Mass Incarceration: Thinking Intersectionally About Women, Race, and Social Control, 59 UCLA Law Review 1418 (2012).
  19. See e.g. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-prisons-make-us-safer/ or https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/.  Consider also that data on crime rates sometimes ignore crime that takes place within the prison system.  Arguments for policing and incarceration as means of ensuring “public safety” therefore sometimes take the implicit position that incarcerated people are not part of the “public”, or not entitled to safety.
  20. A recent grim summary: https://newrepublic.com/article/153473/everyday-brutality-americas-prisons
  21. Consider that there are thousands of federal and state criminal statutes — an accurate count is considered prohibitively difficult (https://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/473659-america-has-too-many-criminal-laws).  This alone places tremendous and arbitrary power in the hands of the criminal legal system, and gives lie to the claim that police and prisons are primarily a democratic mechanism for maintaining justice or safety.
  22. While we believe Garfunkel’s short letter was intended to further dismiss the boycott, it is not directly relevant to the boycott since its focus is Andrea Bertozzi’s AWM lecture; the JMC celebrates the decision not to hold this lecture but will not address this here.
Posted in AMS Notices, Black Lives Matter, ethics, policing, racism, social justice | 5 Comments

Hopes for a new Editor-in-Chief

In June, as part of #ShutDownSTEM, I challenged the AMS to replace me as Editor-in-Chief of this blog. In particular, I challenged them to replace me with a Black mathematician by reconsidering how this position is valued. It is clear that we need to center, value, and support Black voices in mathematics and in this work. I hope that a strong pool of applicants can articulate many ways that the AMS can value this work, but there are two that I suggest.

First, I believe this position should be compensated. Black scholars in particular, and faculty from many groups minoritized in the academy in general, are asked to do a lot of unpaid labor for professional institutions and organizations. It is my understanding that currently all of the Editor-in-Chief positions for the blogs hosted by the AMS are paid 100 AMS Points per year, which is also what I have been offered for reviewing a book for the AMS. Here is the AMS’s language about how these points can be spent.

Each AMS Point entitles you to a \$1 discount on purchases of AMS publications, gift items and membership dues (up to a maximum discount of \$20 may be applied for membership dues). AMS Points may not be used for meeting fees or books distributed (not published) by the AMS. More information may be found on the AMS Points at: https://www.ams.org/membership/amspoints.

In contrast, this role of Editor-in-Chief has required energy from me comparable to responsibilities for which I have been compensated with (i) a course release or (ii) an annual stipend of more than $6000. As a white person, I am also protected from some of the most draining elements of this position. Most people who have been frustrated with me in my role have sent me substantive, respectful notes; and when people from outside our community have left angry comments for me, they mostly speculate that I must be bored or stupid to write the things I have written about justice and mathematics. My colleagues who are people of color, queer, and women have received death threats, so I expect that a new Editor-in-Chief who is Black would deserve to be compensated for significantly more labor even than what this role requires of me. It is my understanding that the AMS views itself as a volunteer organization and that the small compensation with AMS Points for the EiCs represented a big change in practice when it started.

This brings us to my second suggestion. I believe that the AMS needs to continue reconsidering this stance as a volunteer organization. Justice work needs to be core to the work of all professional organizations, including the AMS. I have been pleased that in recent years the MAA has taken up a responsibility for making sure that everyone at their events is asked to consider justice as part of our work, and I think it would be very powerful if the AMS were to insist that all mathematicians participate in this work, including people who up to this point have thought of justice as separate from their work as abstract researchers. I see this blog as doing vital work in our community under the auspices of the AMS, and it seems appropriate and perhaps necessary to frame it as such; moreover, I think that centering Black editorial voices in this work is critical. I have not considered every AMS blog in detail, but I suspect that many other editorial boards see themselves as doing vital work that we believe ought to be part of the public efforts of our largest professional organization. I do not mean to imply that the AMS is doing nothing to fight injustice, but I do think that work of the blogs should be re-imagined as a core part of the work of the organization.

In particular, I think that the relationship between the editorial voice of this blog and the AMS needs to be reconsidered. Right now, we are almost completely independent: in exchange for the AMS hosting the website, they ask us to follow some basic expectations, and an AMS committee formally approves any new Editor-in-Chief. I certainly appreciate that the AMS does not have or try to exert any editorial control over the blog, but in practice I think this means that these conversations are sustained by individuals rather than the organization, which has significant implications for how this work is supported. This is especially important when we account for the ways that white people often discount Black voices when they talk about justice; more formal and overt support for these voices from the AMS is one important element in a response to the structures of racism. Perhaps a new Editor-in-Chief would want to maintain the current arrangement, but I think it needs to be a part of the conversation with the next EiC.

So I hope several readers will apply to be the new EiC of this blog, and I am especially here to help push the AMS so that Black mathematician applicants can feel more confident they would be supported and valued if they accept the position.

Here is the call for applications for the Editor-in-Chief position. The deadline for submissions is 10/26/2020.
https://blogs.ams.org/inclusionexclusion/2020/09/14/applications-requested-for-editor-in-chief-of-the-inclusion-exclusion-blog/

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Get ready for LGBTQ+Math Day

Guest post by Anthony Bonato

Representation matters. Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.

As a gay man and as a mathematician, those words resonate with me. Speaking from my experience and those of colleagues and students, LGBTQ+ mathematicians haven’t always felt represented or included in the broader community. While I’m happy to see equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives ramping up at conferences and mathematics departments in North America and beyond, there is much more work to do.

Given the success of meetings such as LGBT+ STEMinar, LG&TBQ and LGBTQ+STEM, I thought of hosting a day celebrating the life and work of LGBTQ+ mathematicians. With allies Lisa Jeffrey and Michelle Delcourt as co-chairs, the day-long event was scheduled in July 2020 at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto. We lined up fabulous speakers Juliette Bruce, Ron Buckmire, and Emily Riehl, and a panel discussion at the end of the day.

The pandemic hit, putting a halt to in-person events at Fields.  Given the lockdowns, we moved the event on-line and decided to hold it on LGBTSTEM Day on November 18, 2020.

Who can attend? We encourage LGBTQ+ mathematicians, students, and post-docs in the mathematical sciences to attend. We hope allies will join us too.

Why attend? Come to hear state-of-the-art mathematics conducted by LGBTQ+ mathematicians. Gain insight into their journey and challenges. Build or refresh networks within the community.

How can you attend? Visit our website and register. Please join us! It’s a free event.

 

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