Diversity and Mathematics

By Kareem Carr

In preparation for a wider discussion on racial, gender, and ethnic diversity and of persons with disabilities in American mathematics, I have been doing some reading.  The number of relevant groups is much larger than I had anticipated.  While, it is common to note that African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are underrepresented in mathematics, a few groups may have escaped popular attention.

For instance, issues of diversity concerning Asians and Pacific Islanders are not well known.  There is some evidence that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face significant discrimination in society.  Asian Americans are generally perceived as being successful in mathematics.  This presumption has had some adverse effects on groups of Asian Americans that are otherwise doing well.  In other words, stereotypes whether good or ill deprive individuals of a sense of agency and consequently a sense of control over their own destiny.  These stereotypes also deprive them of a sense of recognition of their personal sacrifices in pursuit of success.

There are fourteen groups of Asian Americans with significant demographic representation in America (Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Pakistani, Laotian, Hmong, Thai, Taiwanese, Indonesian and Bangladeshi), and many more groups with smaller representation, and these groups can vary markedly in their level of economic success in American society.  Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians and to a lesser extent Vietnamese are not as successful as other Asian American groups.  Applied Mathematician Sharad Goel, discussing the state of Asian Americans in Mathematics, writes “it appears, at least anecdotally, that few Asian ethnic groups are represented in American mathematics departments.”

People with learning disabilities obligate both legal and ethical responsibilities to provide some accommodation.  A disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”.  Dyscalculia, a collection of challenges associated with mathematical problem solving, can have a direct impact on a student’s ability to learn mathematics and therefore, on the representation of individuals with these disabilities in mathematics.

Finally, women are underrepresented in mathematics. As one article that appeared in the AMS Notices of November, 2008 noted, “some Eastern European and Asian countries frequently produce girls with profound ability in mathematical problem solving; most other countries, including the USA, do not.”

One might ask whether these issues are really problems. The resolution of such an issue is predicated on myriad presumptions about the relationship between the individual and society, and moreover ethics and law. We can sidestep some internal debate by considering what is expected of the mathematical community by society. While this still leaves a somewhat complicated picture, it is an objective fact that individuals with official roles at educational institutions in American society are legally required to address some issues concerning persons of various racial and ethnic identities, genders and states of ability. Furthermore, while opinions certainly differ, many do feel an ethical obligation based on social, historical or moral understandings.  So it is fair to conclude that diversity is an issue even if we disagree on what should be done in response.

I hope some of you will consider sharing your perspective.

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