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Antiracism In Math Promotes Racism and Bad Math

If you are scratching your head over how math might be racist, you are not alone

Recently, a conglomeration of California education associations got together to work on a series of resources for mathematics teachers. The goal? Eliminate racism in mathematics classes by promoting Equitable Math.

If you are struggling to imagine how mathematics could be racist, you are not alone. I am certain there exist racist teachers, and probably teachers who exhibit racist expectations of their students. I would support any reasonable action to get rid of or reform such teachers. But that is not the primary goal of these resources.

The website, equitablemath.org, instead believes that the very way that mathematics is commonly taught is not just racist, but is specifically white supremacist.

Jonathan Bartlett showing his textbook, Calculus from the Ground Up

While I consider myself to be somewhat of a mathematics reformer (see this series of articles, for instance), I think that we should always start with why we are teaching mathematics. What I tell parents, students, and other teachers is this:

Mathematics gives students

  • practice in core reasoning skills
  • with concrete problems
  • that have definite answers
  • in order to help them achieve mastery of the reasoning process
  • that will allow the skill to be applied later to fuzzier problems
  • where answers are not as certain.

That is the goal.

There are also practical benefits to mathematics — being able to balance your checkbook, make correct change, etc. However, the reason why we continue the mathematics curriculum past basic arithmetic is because we are trying to use mathematics as a foundation for deeper reasoning skills.

Some of the suggestions in the resources are worthwhile. Normally I wouldn’t concern myself with any resource for teachers or students that had a mix of good and bad. The problem here is that these (apparently publicly-funded) resources are taking aspects of good math instructions and explicitly labeling them as “white supremacy culture.”

For example, one thing that is helpful for parents, students, and teachers is for students to show their work. I know it can be hard to get students to do this. My own children hate to do it. However, being explicit about the steps in their reasoning is important for a number of reasons. First, showing their work helps students with harder problems. Oftentimes students will get into a habit of completing easy problems in their heads. Then, when more complicated problems come, they fail simply because they got into the habit of not writing down what they were doing. Second, it helps the teachers and parents help the students. The teachers and parents can explicitly see what the student was thinking and where that thinking went awry. This helps everyone involved pinpoint and correct the mistake.

So, what does Equitable Math say about this practice?

According to their published guide, “White supremacy culture shows up in math class when students are required to show their work” (Dismantling Racism in Math Instruction, page 51). Why? For the reasons mentioned above! It promotes “paternalism” — the idea that math teachers and parents might know more about mathematics than the students (see also page 72 where it claims that teachers teaching is another facet of white supremacy culture). It promotes “worship of the written word” — the idea that writing things down makes things more explicit, understandable, and knowable. These are things that most of us perceive as benefits, but according to Equitable Math, is a product of “white supremacy culture.”

Equitable Math then approaches another supposed aspect of white supremacy culture. “White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer” (Dismantling Racism in Math Instruction, page 65). It goes on to say that, “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so.”

It is true that there are aspects of math which are not purely objective. But the mathematics taught in high school is, for the most part, objectively true (though see this article for why some people think this is false). It could also be argued that math takes certain assumptions, which, if altered, would change the result. This is also true, but irrelevant. Since math is about the mental (not the physical), the results are objectively true given your assumptions, and the assumptions of mathematics are pretty well-known.

The authors say that the root white supremacist ideas behind getting the right answer are “objectivity” and “fear of open conflict.” I’ll admit quite happily to being pro-objectivity. However, the reason for wanting a single answer isn’t “fear” or “conflict.” It’s much more basic: education. If there is not a clear answer, then students don’t have a mechanism to determine if they successfully learned the concept. And there is nothing worse in mathematics than to think that you know how something works when you don’t.

It’s not that questions that admit to multiple answers are necessarily bad. They are just bad for beginners. If you don’t know how to get correct answers, having questions that have ambiguous results doesn’t help you achieve mastery. If you already have mastery, then ambiguous questions can take what you already know and stretch it. But, to get there, you have to start by focusing on getting the right answer.

In short, the Equitable Math suggestions, if presented by themselves, would be a mixed bag of good and terrible suggestions. However, in the context of “fighting white supremacy culture,” they are actively destructive because they label some of the practices which help the students the most as being part of “white supremacy culture.” I can’t think of a more destructive way to try to fix what is wrong in mathematics.

Note: Jonathan Bartlett is the author of the mathematics textbook Calculus from the Ground Up

You may also wish to read: Yes, there really is a war on math in our schools. Pundits differ as to the causes but here are some facts parents should know. It feels odd to hear math, a multi-ethnic enterprise for as long as we have had written records, described as “white supremacy.”

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Antiracism In Math Promotes Racism and Bad Math