You don’t need a doctorate in mathematics to understand the numbers and bias behind Black mathematicians’ near-invisibility in their own discipline. The New York Times notes that only 1 percent of all math Ph.D.s granted in the last decade went to Black scholars. The outlet profiled one such mathematician, Edray Goins, and his fight against the math world’s White normative culture yesterday (February 18).
NAM President Edray Goins is featured in the New York Times on the challenges of being the only Black mathematician. https://t.co/qdeAdt7T9T— Edray Herber Goins (@edraygoins) February 18, 2019
The article chronicles the South Los Angeles native’s path and his ongoing mission to bring more underrepresented groups of color into math. The Times highlights a 2017 essay he wrote for the American Mathematical Society that explains why he left a tenured faculty spot in Purdue University’s well-known and research-heavy math department for another job at the much smaller, undergraduate education-focused Pomona College. Goins, who is president of the National Association of Mathematicians, partially attributes the decision to his isolation and required additional labor:
I am an African-American male. I have been the only one in most of the universities [that I’ve] been to—the only student or faculty in the mathematics department. In fact for a while at my current Research I University, I was only one of two African-American faculty in the entire College of Science—which houses seven departments for 300 faculty and staff serving nearly 3,000 students.
Allow me to put this into perspective. African Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the general population. This means, on average, one out of every eight people you pass on the street will be African American. In my College of Science, that average drops to one out of every 100 faculty you meet on our campus. To say that I feel isolated is an understatement.
I have been willing to work with my university on bringing more underrepresented minority faculty to visit campus to give talks (especially through my speaker series in 2011, 2012, and 2013) and bringing more underrepresented minority students to conduct research (especially through my REU). But it gets very tiring. Very Tiring. Especially when you’re still trying to work with your own postdocs, graduate students and research projects.
The Times also follows Goins as he navigates the aftermath of this essay before delivering a lecture about Black mathematicians at last month’s Joint Mathematics Meetings. Several of his Black colleagues recalled the racism that plagued their own careers:
And at the recent math meeting, where Dr. Goins delivered a keynote address titled “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics,” his presence kindled conversations about racial slights in the math world. The presumption of competence and authority that seems to be automatically accorded other mathematicians, for instance, is often not applied to them, several Black mathematicians said.
“Who do they make eye contact with? Not you,” said Nathaniel Whitaker, an African American who heads the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Michael Young, a mathematician at Iowa State University, said he almost gave up on graph theory a few years ago after an encounter with some of the leaders of the field at a math institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“A couple of them were at a board writing something,” he recalled. “I went over and asked, ‘What are you guys working on?’”
“We’re too far in to catch you up,” he said he was told.
Get caught up on Goins’ story at NYTimes.com.