Campus Reform relates the story of a University of Illinois Math professor named Rochelle Gutierrez who has concluded in a new book that mathematics is racist because it encourages White Privilege. People who think that math simply describes the universe as it is have apparently got it all wrong. The thesis may come as a surprise to the Indians and Arabs who helped to develop algebra. Katherine Johnson, the African American math genius who made herself useful to the early space program, never knew she was promoting whiteness by being so good at the subject.

The multicultural roots of math

Gutierrez seems to be somewhat ignorant about who developed what form of math. To be sure, the ancient Greeks invented geometry and trigonometry. An English gentleman named Isaac Newton and a German named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz came up with the notion of modern calculus. However, algebra is a truly multicultural form of mathematics, with origins in ancient Babylonia, but having been developed in India and the Arab world before being adopted by the Europeans.

Katherine Johnson didn’t recognize the whiteness of math

Those gentle readers who saw the movie “Hidden Figures” and, better yet, read the book know about Katherine Johnson and a host of other African American women “computers” who proved to be so crucial for the early space program.

The idea that somehow math was inherently racist would never have occurred to these ladies. Knowledge of math and the ability to use it to solve the problems of space travel were empowering to those women.

Time had been that an African American who had math skills would hope only to be a teacher in a segregated high school. Starting with the aviation research that grew out of World War II and continuing with the space program, math skills granted an entry for many marginalized people into a wider world of opportunity and possibility.

Knowledge of math does not denote “white privilege.” Math recognizes no race, creed, color, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual preference. Mathematics just is.

The bottom line

One wonders what motivated Gutierrez to develop her peculiar racial theory of mathematics. Let’s face it, unless one has a mind like Katherine Johnson or Stephen Hawking, learning math can be hard for anyone of any race.

Take it from someone who found mathematics very difficult. Compounding that difficulty by bringing race into it does no one any good service. The notion of knowledge of math as “white privilege” is simply an exercise in excuse making. People who teach math would better serve their students by avoiding such race-baiting.

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