Math and Race: Why Don't More African Americans Do Science and Engineering?

friendly teacher helping primary schoolgirl in science class
friendly teacher helping primary schoolgirl in science class

In November 2012, fifth graders from Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif. won four of the top ten prizes in a regional math contest with over 90 participants, including the top prize.

An anonymous commenter -- we'll call him "Aperson," and also call him "him" -- wondered why, when 44 percent of the school's students are African American or Latino, were none of the members of the winning team African American, and only one Latino? Haven't we had five decades of affirmative action?

Aperson ignores the question of sex, despite the fact that only one of the top ten prizes went to a girl, and cuts to the race.

Of course we haven't had five decades of affirmative action, as Allan Bakke can testify: We had about five years. And Aperson's confederates who mock the role racism has played in retarding the development of black mathematicians are being ahistorical, if not A-something else: Race kept the respected mathematician David Blackwell out of Princeton University's math building in 1941, and only a decade ago, a black mathematician in Tennessee had to flee the state after receiving death threats from Klan supporters.

I'll concede, however, that it is no longer 2002, and that direct racism is not the sole reason why there is "such an egregious under-representation of black and Hispanic kids in the competition...." Unlike Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. DuBois, today's typical inner-city African-American student has no respect for teachers or education.

In September 2012, I taught geometry at an urban high school. One boy's first words to me were: "Get your a** out of my face." Another student was talking in class, using the S-word, the A-word, and the N-word. I asked him politely not to swear, and he snarled at me to stay out of his conversation. When I mentioned the great mathematician Ramanujan and magic squares to the students, one girl shouted, "We don't care!"

I tried to point out to the students that education was the route by which they could escape their current circumstances, that people like Frederick Douglass had endured far worse than a ghetto upbringing, and emerged victorious. Rather than rise to the example of Douglass, one girl said that maybe they had a different learning style than he.

Fifty-three percent of African-American men drop out of high school. What Aperson must understand is that this dysfunction is not a matter of race, but of culture. I taught an advanced class on enumerative combinatorics to teens at a public school in the New York City area; most of the students who attended were of African descent, and one black girl, "Lisa," whose father came from Guyana, was faster than I was at calculations I had done several times before. The town is 72.5 percent white and only 5.5 percent black.

What accounts for the difference? Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are the most highly educated segment of the U.S. population. One day last summer, I was delighted to see that, of the seventeen or so students I was teaching in Harlem, four of them, on their own time, were playing around with quadratic equations: a Hispanic, a Nigerian and two Haitians. My brother, a certified teacher, quipped that the children of Haiti would swim to America if they knew they could get into a free public school. I suspect that most of the Asian winners of the Berkeley math contest also have foreign parents.

In conclusion, Aperson must understand that if Marlon Brando hadn't had to come to Berkeley in 1968, black America would not be in such bad shape today; but, looking forward, the solution to the problem Aperson has identified is to disaggregate the black race, and recognize that African and Caribbean immigrants are not African-American city dwellers. Let more of the former in, and we'll see more great stories come in shades of brown.

A version of this article appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper of Berkeley, California.