Is it racist to expect black kids to do math for real?
Yes, serious people are arguing this. Make sure they don't infect your school district.
There is a document getting around called Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, a guide put together by a group of educators. It has a black boy on the cover.
The idea is to show us how our racial reckoning of late ought change how we expose black kids to math. I suppose the counsel is also intended for kids of other types of melanin, but this is in essence a document that could be called “Math For Black Kids.”
The latest is that state-level policy makers in Oregon are especially intrigued by this document. There is all reason to suppose that its influence will spread more widely.
And this is to be resisted, as this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math. To wit – its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.
Of course the authors have it that “The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of antiracist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by visualizing the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture.” But translated, this means that math as we have always known it is racism. That’s a rich claim, and if correct, it is of earth-shattering urgency. But is it correct? Let’s see how it holds up.
Now, part of “antiracist math teaching” here is to teach about black mathematicians (the authors have this as kids “reclaiming their mathematical ancestry” – the jargon is, we must admit, beautiful) or to air facts such as that the traditional Yoruba approach to numbers (and wow, numbers in Yoruba, I note as linguist me, are indeed fierce!) use base 20. No one would object to these things, nor to the idea that we “teach students of color about the career and financial opportunities in math and STEM fields.”
But 96% of people reading this kind of thing will be thinking “Yeah, but what about the math??”
And there is nothing white supremacist in that question. The substance of a serious proposal about teaching math will be, well, teaching how to do math itself, not its history and sociology.
For example, one idea in this fascicle is that black students learn how math has hurt people (i.e. black ones). But it’s no slam dunk that little kids need to be taught this. Wouldn’t this affect a child’s attitude towards mastering the skills? Or – the burden is upon the authors here to explain just why it would not. Sure, teachers imparting this lesson would show that they know racism exists; they will thus Reckon With Racism as we are told they must. But what might the impact of that lesson be on children who haven’t even reached puberty?
More to the point is that this entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.
Yes, the document pays lip service otherwise, claiming at one point to seek to “teach rich, thoughtful, complex mathematics.” And rather often, the word praxis is used. But the thrust of this pamphlet is that:
1. a focus on getting the “right” answer is “perfectionism” or “either/or thinking;”
2. the idea that teachers are teachers and students are learners is wrong;
3. to think of it as a problem that the expectations you have of students are not met is racist;
4. to teach math in a linear fashion with skills taught in sequence is racist;
5. to value “procedural fluency” – i.e. knowing how to do the fractions, long division … -- over “conceptual knowledge” is racist. That is, black kids are brilliant to know what math is trying to do, to know “what it’s all about,” rather than to actually do the math, just as many of us read about what physics or astrophysics accomplishes without ever intending to master the math that led to the conclusions;
6. to require students to “show their work” is racist;
7. requiring students to raise their hand before speaking “can reinforce paternalism and powerhoarding, in addition to breaking the process of thinking, learning, and communicating.”
You may wonder if this is a cartoon but no, this is real! This is actually what this document tells us, again and again. This, folks, is the “Critical Race Theory” that so many of us are resisting, not a simple program for “social justice.” To distrust this document is not to be against social justice, but against racism.
The objections to my take here will be predictable. There is a kind of resistance that Zora Neale Hurston noted among black people wary of white curiosity which she termed “feather-bed resistance,” where one probes to enter but “never comes out.” While Zora would have had no truck with this vision of antiracist math whatsoever, we find the kind of resistance she referred to among The Elect these days when their claims are held up to the sunlight.
So for example: I am not cherry-picking especially ripe-seeming quotes from an otherwise perfectly normal document. I am referring to its principal tenets, often restated several times within it.
Another response will be that I am exaggerating the proposal’s impact – that almost nobody is using it for real and that really it’s “just a proposal.” To which the proper response is “Thank God,” – but we also recall that the people saying this would be dancing jigs if every state in the Union adopted the whole pamphlet wholesale.
Upon which the main thing is that those who see that this document is a racist screed must resist it if it pops up in your school district. Know that it may not be instantly aired that this specific document is being pored over by the people entrusted with the education of your children. However, sniff out the basic tenets I numbered above, and then ask if this thing has been shared by the school board members.
Many will dislike the general flavor of it but, amidst so much we all have to pay attention to, may question just what we must object to specifically about Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.
There are two things. Racism and religion. Just those.
As in, first it is racism propounded as antiracism. Black kids shouldn’t expected to master the precision of math and should be celebrated for talking around it, gamely approximating its answers and saying why it can be dangerous? This is bigotry right out of Reconstruction, Tulsa, Selma, and Charlottesville.
Second, it is not science but scripture. It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is unempirical. It does so with an implication that only a moral transgressor numb to some larger point would question the contradiction. This is, as such, a religious document, telling you to accept that Jesus walked on water.
Humans may grievously sacrifice the 9-year-old, the virgin, or the widow upon the pyre in worship of a God. Too, humans may sacrifice the black kid from the work of mastering the gift of math, in favor of showing that they are enlightened enough to understand that her life may be affected by racism and that therefore she should be shielded from anything that is a genuine challenge.
This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.
And in this country, religious propositions have no place in the public square.