Is math racist? Bill Gates-funded program stirs bizarre 'white supremacy' controversy

Is math racist? Bill Gates-funded program stirs bizarre 'white supremacy' controversy
Representational photo (Justin Lewis/Getty Images)

A new mathematics program introduced by a California-based advocacy book is earning flak after it alluded that mathematics has racist undertones. Urging educators to not pressure students to find the correct answer in math, a workbook for teachers asserts that America's education system should reinforce power structures equally dominant as White colonizers were. Incidentally enough, the initiative titled 'Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction' created by The Education Trust-West from Oakland, is funded through a $1M grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The workbook for teachers comes in the wake of introducing critical race theory in the American school curriculum. Its teachings claim that urging students to find correct answers to math problems is akin to white supremacy, reports education news site The 74 Million. Titled 'A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction', the book is already being used by school districts in Georgia, Ohio, California and Oregon, according to the outlet. The book deems practices of grading students' work, asking them to show their work in the first place, demanding participation in classes and even pushing for the right answers in math as harmful to minorities. Critics of the book however deem that its narrative reinforces negative stereotypes, that ultimately lead to a race-based wedge between students. 


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How is math racist?

The critical race theory enforces the concept of examining social, legal and cultural issues as they relate to race and religion. After President Joe Biden sanctioned the inclusion of the theory in US school curriculum, there's been massive outrage from critics who think it's unnecessarily divisive and teaches children from a very early age that they are either a victim or an oppressor. The Bill and Melinda funded math workbook's manual however claims: "The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false. Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates 'objectivity'."

The book instead asks teachers to have more than one answer for math problems. It encourages teachers to refrain from pushing students to give answers to math problems. The book also has tips for practices how to relate math to minority students problems, and to make a habit of providing examples of how math is used by politicians. "Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views," the workbook calling math racist, reads.

Rachel Ruffalo, director of educator engagement at the group that created the workbook, explained further to the outlet: "Math enjoyed this notion that it was somehow above the influence of the cultural and political issues of our time." An introduction to the book also outlined: "We live in a toxic culture that affects us all; one dynamic of the culture is that we are discouraged from seeing it. One of our tasks is to learn to see our culture and how it teaches us to make normal that which is not and should never be normal."

Defense of the book came from the Gates Foundation too, with spokeswoman Josie McSpadden telling the outlet: "At times, research has shown that racial bias and student mindsets can affect student academic achievement. (The workbook) highlights a critical discussion — how students arrive at answers and demonstrate their understanding and conceptual grasp of important math concepts."

Representational photo (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Workbook dubbed unnecessarily divisive

Pushback against the book however has been rampant, and visible even amid state board members of the California school districts who recently voted against using it to redesign the state's math curriculum, even though it's being used in school districts within the state already. The outlet also reports that the Georgia state board recently passed a resolution banning CRT from being taught in schools, after Georgia schools had already used the workbook. Slamming the workbook, professor of rhetoric and composition at York College of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Free Black Thought, Erec Smith, told the outlet: "The workbook's ultimate message is clear: Black kids are bad at math, so why don't we just excuse them from really learning it." 

According to Williamson Evers, former Bush administration's employee of the US Department of Education, the book would discourage students from succeeding in math and put them behind students across the world. "If California education officials have their way, generations of students may not know how to calculate an apartment's square footage or the area of a farm field, but the 'mathematics' of political agitation and organizing will be second nature to them," he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, shortly after the workbook began trending. 

But criticism of the workbook has come from those who propagate anti-racism curriculums in schools. John McWhorter, a Free Black Thought contributor and professor of linguistics and music history at Columbia University, wrote in a recent blog: "It (the workbook) claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. 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."

David Barnes, associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, asked in conversation with the outlet: "Are we building bridges or throwing grenades? When you get to page two and what's bolded is 'dismantling white supremacy', there are some people that cannot read past that."

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