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Math is not racist. Math is Blackness

Black History Quiz
Math is not racist. Math is Blackness
By Jim Stroud • Issue #89 • View online
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Math is not racist. Math is Blackness
Quite recently, someone brought to my attention this article - “Oregon promotes teacher program that seeks to undo ‘racism in mathematics.” Here is a quote from that article:
Part of the toolkit includes a list of ways “white supremacy culture” allegedly “infiltrates math classrooms.” Those include “the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer,” students being “required to ‘show their work,'” and other alleged manifestations.
“The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so,” the document for the “Equitable Math” toolkit reads. “Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.”
When I read that, I thought it was satire of some kind. Once I realized it was indeed a factual account, I laughed. Afterwards, I thought of 10 people who would likely disagree that math was racist; all of them being famous African American Mathematicians. I list them below. Can you name them all?
1) During his lifetime he was barred from studying and working at many different universities in the U.S. due to racial prejudice. He overcame many of these challenges to become a statistics professor at the University of California Berkeley, one of the most prestigious Universities in America. He was also the first African-American to be admitted into the US National Academy of Sciences, a society of the most distinguished scientists in America. He specialized in game theory and became an expert on what is known as the duellist’s dilemma, where two opponents approach each other with loaded pistols and have to decide on the best moment in which to fire – a problem which was of keen interest to the military during the Cold War.  He also has a famous theorem in advanced statistics named after him.
President Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom
2) She was a space scientist and mathematician who was employed by NASA – working on many famous missions such as that of the first American flight in space; the moon landings and also the infamous Apollo 13 flight, where her calculations meant that the crew were able to return safely to earth after an oxygen tank exploded. She was so good that in 1962 astronaut John Glenn refused to fly unless she had personally checked all the calculations of his orbit around the earth. As an African-American woman in the 1950s it was unheard of to be engaged in mathematical research for NASA. The only way she obtained this role was by being temporarily assigned to the all-male flight research team – once she was there, her prodigious talents meant that she was kept on as a vital member of the team. In January 2017 a film called Hidden Figures was released about her work and other African-Americans at NASA.
3) He was a remarkable mathematician, displaying amazing talents from an early age. He started studying at university at the age of just 13, and by the age of 19 had already earned a PhD in mathematics. During the Second World War he worked on the Manhattan project which was focused on developing the first atomic bomb and after the war continued to apply mathematics to problems in the nuclear industry.
4) She is a renowned British research mathematician who has won many prestigious awards. After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Cambridge, she went on to study a PhD at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is from a highly mathematical family, with her Nigerian father also being a research mathematician who is thought to have written more mathematical papers than any other African citizen.
One of the highlights of her career was being the first black person to receive a Sloan Research Fellowship.  This is an award which is only given to promising researchers who are in the early stages of their careers. As an indicator of the importance of the award, 43 former Sloan Fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes and 16 Sloan Fellows have gone on to win the Fields medal which is the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She is currently a professor of mathematics at John Hopkins University where her research includes studying elliptical determinants and the properties of different dimensions in space.
5) She is a leading researcher into mathematics education in South Africa and was the first black female South African to gain a PhD in Mathematics education. As well as producing world famous research on mathematics education, she has also devoted her life to helping some of the most underprivileged students in her country. In 2004 she founded the Adopt-A-Learner Project which provides annual scholarships to learners who are outstanding in mathematics, but cannot afford to study. In recognition of her many achievements in 2014 CEO magazine named her as the most influential woman in Academia in Africa.
6) He was a free African-American almanac author, surveyor, landowner and farmer who had knowledge of mathematics and natural history. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African-American woman and a former slave, he had little or no formal education and was largely self-taught. He became known for assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in a survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States. His knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. In 1791, he famously penned a letter to then secretary of state Thomas Jefferson asking for his help in improving conditions for Africans living in the United States, which highly impressed Jefferson and convinced many that blacks were intellectually equal to whites.
7) He is a famous computer scientist and engineer, credited with assisting in the development of several breakthrough computer technologies for IBM. He invented the first gigahertz computer chip and co-invented the Industry Standard Architecture System for computing, which allows for common plug-ins such as personal printers and modems. He was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1997
8) He is a famous inventor, mathematician, and engineer who holds over 120 patents. He served as an engineer for the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on developing the stealth bomber, and later for NASA’s Jet Propulsion program. He is best known for inventing the Super Soaker water gun while working at the U.S. Air Force, a product which has grossed nearly $1 Billion since 1990. He also invented a “toy projectile gun,” which eventually became the Nerf Gun.
9) She is famous for being the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, which she achieved from the Catholic University of America in 1943. After earning her Ph.D., she embarked on a 47-year career of advocacy for students of color, improving schools, and overcoming the harmful effects of racial segregation. During this time, she was also a math professor at the District of Columbia Teachers College, where she managed the Division of Mathematics and Business Education department.
10) He excelled in both mathematics and playing football at Penn State University and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. In 2014, he was drafted from Penn State into the NFL by the Baltimore Ravens, where he played his entire NFL career before retiring at age 26 to further pursue mathematics. He is currently working towards his Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT where some of his mathematical fields of interest include graph theory, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning.
Hidden Figures | Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX
Hidden Figures | Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX
Leon Duffus: Black Mathematicians - The Numbers Don't Add Up?! | #Blackinacademia |
Leon Duffus: Black Mathematicians - The Numbers Don't Add Up?! | #Blackinacademia |
Documenting the History of Black Mathematicians
Documenting the History of Black Mathematicians
1) David Blackwell (1919 - 2010)
2) Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020)
3) Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923 - 2011)
4) Kathleen Okikiolu (1965 - Present)
5) Mamokgethi Phakeng (1966 – present)
6) Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)
7) Mark Dean (1957-Present)
8) Lonnie Johnson (1949-Present)
9) Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890–1980)
10) John Urschel (1991-Present)
For further study:
John Urschel-NFL Math Whiz: Real Sports Full Segment (HBO)
John Urschel-NFL Math Whiz: Real Sports Full Segment (HBO)
Euphemia Lofton Haynes, the first black woman to earn a PhD in Mathematics - Face2Face Africa
Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence Paperback
Beyond Banneker: Resources for Learning about Black Mathematicians |
Katherine Johnson, Black NASA Mathematician Portrayed in 'Hidden Figures', Dies at 101 - Science Spies
Five famous black mathematicians - Maths Careers
Did you enjoy this issue?
Jim Stroud

Black History Quiz is a weekly celebration of the contributions and achievements of Africans and the descendants of the diaspora in the United States and around the world. PLEASE SHARE this newsletter and help spread the word about a proud people and their cultures. New issues post on Sundays at 7:30 am EST. |

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