The AMS recently published a report on the historical role of the society in racism and exclusion in mathematics. The task force responsible for this report was chaired by Kasso Okoudjou and Francis Su, and the other members were Tasha Inniss, Jim Lewis, Irina Mitrea, Dylan Thurston, and myself, and started this work on July 2020. The description of this work and the full report are available here. In this short post, I wanted to bring attention to the report, and also share some of the biggest takeaways for me.
The goals of the task force were many: to give a good “lay of the land” regarding the state of racism in our profession; to investigate the role of the AMS in tackling this issue, which necessitated also looking into the history of the society; and to give recommendations for action. So the work was mostly comprised of weekly one-hour meetings, interviews and surveys with mathematicians, reading historical documents (like council minutes and older reports) and of course, writing. The turn-around was six months, and we submitted a draft to the AMS council in January (at the time of the JMM). Our main findings and recommendations are briefly described in the one-page executive summary, fleshed out a little more in Chapter 1, and then described in detail for the rest of the 76 page document. The preface was a little different, but I think did a beautiful job of setting up the tone of the report — it was an account of the story of William Claytor and his poor treatment and exclusion from the mathematics profession. (Another such account is mentioned in a previous post!)
I’m not sure I can write about it in much more detail without ending up repeating things that are in the document — so I guess, go read it! Instead, I want to share a few thoughts about this process with you.
First of all, the experience itself was much more emotional than I thought it was going to be (and I thought it was going to be plenty emotional from the offset). I have grown to really love and respect the other members of the task force (some of whom I already loved and respected), and I am so grateful to have spent so much time in the company of these brilliant and kind people. We brought different strengths, experiences, and perspectives to the table, and I can’t remember much disagreement (except for the one topic that shall not be named, and there the disagreement was more about whether we could mention “that one thing” in the report and how much).
It was also emotional because we were interviewing dozens of mathematicians, many of whom recounted some hard and painful experiences caused by their profession and professional society. It was hard to even ask, because the process itself felt extractive — “give us your stories, and we hope someone out there develops some more empathy because of it”. I can only hope that the community and the AMS react how we hope — that these stories will give human context and a face to something we all know is an issue in mathematics, that this community will understand that there is a moral imperative to change.
And finally, there was, of course, the resistance. I am well aware that many in our profession don’t believe that racism is a problem that mathematicians have to contend with, and some even go as far as to say that there is not racism in mathematics (thank you, Twitter, I guess). I was surprised to see the reactions of some mathematicians (mainly in our surveys) saying that dealing with this problem was bad for mathematics. Some said that if the AMS cares more about humans, then we will value research less. Some said that “we will basically become the MAA” (really, this was said). This false dichotomy has always been there, but it felt so much more callous because there were humans literally saying “you are hurting me, and that makes my math worse”. For some, the takeaway after reading the report was “OK, so Claytor was treated poorly, but the real reason that there are not that many Black mathematicians is that white people are better at math”, and in the same breath, call themselves not racist. Anyway. Thank you, Twitter.
The second thing that really struck me was our discovery of the 1996 report, a report written by a task force much like ours, composed to deal with the issues of racism in mathematics. We read it, and many of the recommendations they made in that report were similar to the recommendations we were writing up. And the kicker: very little had changed since 1996. For me, that was a gut punch. I suddenly saw myself in the “20 years later” flash forward at the end of the movie, in which another task force is formed, in space I presume, and that they are charged to detail the racist history of the AMS, and that our report surfaces and people ask “whatever happened to that? why has nothing changed?”. We were all shocked, and a little depressed, when we found this older report.
But this actually presented an opportunity — the opportunity to say to the AMS, the membership, the leadership, and mathematicians more generally, that a task force and a document on their own do nothing. That if there’s no accountability, and no commitment to change things, the world will stay how it is, for the most part.
I really hope that, in 20 years, people look back at this document and say that it was the start of something good.