American Mathematical Society excoriated for creating a fellowship for black mathematicians, but not yet giving it a name

January 25, 2021 • 11:15 am

Speaking of Wokeness, remember that one of its symptoms is that if you do something in line with the tenets of Critical Theory, but don’t adhere to them 100%, you’re going to get slammed anyway. And you can never predict why and how The Outraged will come at you.

Here’s a ludicrous but sad example. The American Mathematical Society (AMS) recently created a fellowship “to support the research and scholarship of mid-career Black mathematicians.” That is good, right?

Not so fast. In their haste to announce the fellowship, the AMS didn’t yet name the fellowship, even though the details and application process haven’t even been revealed.  And so the Twitterati got to work on this thread and, clearly, contacting and excoriating the AMS for its “disrespectful” action. You can see some of the tweets on this thread, and I’ve put a few below.

It’s not enough to criticize the AMS for what the offended perceived as a hamhanded action (I don’t see it that way); they also hinted darkly that the lack of a name—and the fellowship will get a name—is an “intentional aggression”! How twisted do you have to be to think that the creation of a fellowship for black mathematicans is an “intentional aggression” because it wasn’t yet named?

If one were charitable, one would presume, as is certainly the case, that the fellowship will have a name by the time people start applying for it. But charity is not part of Wokeness.

What happened? The proper response would have been, “Chill people; we’ve just announced it. The name will come soon.” Instead, the AMS issued this groveling apology:

Look at that! They apologize for not yet issuing a “proper, respectful, and Council-approved name”. They even apologize for causing “hurt and anger.” My response to that would be “suck it up; you’ll live.” The AMS is spineless, abasing itself before the dubious claims that there was harm. Anger? Yes, of course. Hurt? Maybe, but the hurt is in those who are ready and willing to be hurt; in fact, they’re looking to be hurt, knowing that if you claim hurt and offense, you get your way. This is all a way to leverage power. And if you reward outrage, the obvious outcome is more outrage. 

h/t: Luana

31 thoughts on “American Mathematical Society excoriated for creating a fellowship for black mathematicians, but not yet giving it a name

  1. If I were an AMS member, I would quit immediately and write them a detailed note explaining exactly why. The bottom line is, how could you have any self-respect being a voluntary part of an outfit that’s so revoltingly spineless?

  2. Marissa Kawehi appears like a schoolbook example of a twat, an obnoxious and mentally challenged person.
    Whatever you try, you can’t win.
    (and I have some special opinion on those that appear to prefix their name with Dr on twitter or other social media, in order to appear more credible/weighty, but that is another discussion)

  3. “The AMS is spineless, abasing itself before the dubious claims that there was harm.”

    Yes, but they probably did a cost-benefit analysis (they are mathematicians after all) and found that there was not sufficient upside to fighting.

    1. Very much PURE (4-letter word) mathematicians, so unclear.

      Likely the present president is the dork here, despite being a very good mathematician.

  4. How about they try this response: “Ok, we thought we were doing something good, but since it seems to have created more problems than it’s worth we’ll withdraw the fellowship”. No? What could possibly go wrong?

  5. This is one of those ‘get you coming going’ things, isn’t it? The society doesn’t announce the award’s coming, and people get wind of it, people complain they aren’t being kept informed. The society does announce the award early, people complain not all the details are worked out.

    I’d go with Katherine Johnson or Elbert Cox. Banneker is also good but he’s already got a lot of stuff named after him.

  6. Michael Lind (in Tablet) provides the following explanation of Wokespeech

    “More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify.
    …Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.”

    1. I agree with this general premise and have said this about the Mean Girl elements of Woke Culture for awhile now – I disagree with Lind that this is a brilliant strategy, however. It may be quite effective in the very short term, but I think it’s highly unstable in even the “mid short term”. I think this is a bandaid, slipshod solution to Peter Turchin’s idea of elite overproduction, but one that will not to stave off the instability of too many would-be elites for long. (Turchin is not exactly sunny about the future during the next decade or so and his thoughts on the matter worry me.) There are some authoritarian and / or elitist systems that seem to speak to something deep in human nature and so become deeply engrained, with psychological group buy-in all around, taking a great deal of time to change – Wokeism does not at all strike me as one of them. It seems to infuriate a larger percent of the population than it intuitively speaks to.

    2. This explanation of Woke’s existence has a real ring of truth to it. But there must be more to it than this — what about the positive feedback loops you see all the time in Woke culture, which forces members of its elite participants into a kind of leapfrogging race to the absurd or even surreal margins of social just virtue purity and the Jacobin idiocies that we’ve seen at Evergreen, Bryn Mawr, Havorford and other horror shows? Woke dynamics seems to inevitably lead the ‘movement’ (not the right word, but…) to devour its own—and that’s something that you don’t need to do if your sole aim is keeping the hoi polloi in their place.

    3. Wait! Non-college educated Americans are “unlikely to be able to identify” Twitter? What about high school kids? What about the self-educated? What about those who flunked out of college because they spent all their time on Twitter and Facebook? You’re not very woke, are you? But wait! “Kids”? Is that a permitted word? What about “flunked out”? What about “Wait!”? I suppose it’s possible I’m not very woke either and I don’t care. But I am retired and I’m not trying to advance a career of any kind, so the woke police can’t punish me (yet). The obvious problem is that people pay attention to the woke ones, thereby giving them power. Is it too late? Is their power so entrenched that they can’t be ignored without risking one’s reputation or career, etc.? I don’t have a clue, but it sure would be a good thing if we could return to a world in which power, respect and being handed a megaphone are earned. The framers of the Constitution, some of whom owned slaves but otherwise had some pretty good ideas, rejected the idea of monarchy, so nobody is supposed to be born with power in the U.S.. It’s a pretty good position from which to make progress, but progress isn’t enough anymore. Today, unless we can go back in time and make everyone and everything better, nothing we can do will ever be good enough. Will the time come when the woke will have overplayed their hand and everyone will stop paying attention? It seems unlikely to me. The lunatics running the asylum are ubiquitous, diligent and relentlessly eagle-eyed in their determination to find nothings to offend them and most good-intentioned regular people are perpetually surprised and totally caught off guard by how offensive the woke dopes think they are.

  7. From the perspective of wokeism, mathematics as we know it isn’t scientifically objective and racially neutral (“color-blind”) but socioculturally oppressive white(-supremacist) mathematics; so it is methodologically, epistemologically, and sociologically “problematic” in itself, and thus needs to be “decolonized”. Here’s a typical example of “wokethink” in these matters:

    “What White Mathematics Education Is and How to Interrupt It:

    …we have looked broadly at race and white supremacy in society and next applied this to education in general. Here, we take the next step in thinking about race and our efforts in teaching mathematics with a critical race perspective. We start with a look at the racialized nature of mathematics education policy and distinctions among those who discuss race in mathematics education. Next we look at several considerations and projects aiming to increase access and equity with respect to mathematics education. These contributions correspond directly to the theory and approaches laid out in the previous sections, including critical race theory and culturally relevant teaching.
    Danny Martin, a professor of mathematics education, provides clear discussions about the racialization of mathematics education policy in the United States. His article “Race, Racial Projects and Mathematics Education” (2013) foregrounds the construct of race in understanding the historical development of math teaching and learning, at least as it is talked about at the top level. He argues how mathematics education can be characterized as “white institutionalized space” (p. 323). This means that white actors have dominated the definition and purpose of mathematics education over the course of its development. They have held and continue to hold math education’s positions of power. Finally, mathematics education has long been portrayed as neutral, impartial, and unconnected to race and white supremacy. The last is perhaps the easiest to see firsthand. There has been a long tradition of actively stating that mathematics is not relevant to race, and yet race is so clearly related to student performance in it. And yet, how often do we say and hear claims of math as the “universal language,” the objective, value-free knowledge? In this sense, we might say that mathematics education, as it has been conceived, should be more accurately called white mathematics education.”

    (Wolfmeyer, Mark. Mathematics Education: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2017. pp. 50-1)

    1. There are many logics and linear algebra recognizes that there are an infinite number of possible operators. So if woke folks want to invent their own, that’s perfectly fine. Whether they get adopted by larger society will depend on their usefulness in doing things society wants to do and solving problems society wants to solve. I’d be very curious to see how they try and sneak their biases in to abstract mathematical operations without giving the game away though – I really don’t see how they can do it.

  8. Sergeant Schultz and Colonel Klink’s nightmare,
    ” you will be shot THEN sent to the Russian Front”
    comes to mind…
    whereas Sgt Schultz’s “I see nothing”
    should have applied to the wokynism of outrage.

  9. BTW, someone like Jean Pierre, who thinks ONETY ONE is a number, should probably refrain from arguing with mathematicians.

  10. I understand why the Society dragged naming the fellowship. They should fear that whomever they choose to name it after, s/he will be excoriated as an Uncle Tom, a traitor to the Black cause who conspired with whites in upholding and advancing the racist oppressive construct of white mathematics.

  11. I read through the replies to the original tweet and there was lots of whining but not one single suggestion of a black mathematician after whom to name the prize. Personally, I can’t think of a single famous black mathematician* but I’m not a mathematician myself, so my knowledge of distinguished mathematicians is limited.

    I think this is telling. These people are not interested in building a better world for black people, only in tearing down other people’s work.

    *Unless Indian counts and then you have Ramanujan

    1. David Blackwell is highly regarded.

      Yet even for every Blackwell, you’ll find many East Asians and Jews at least as good. It would be great to have more mathematicians, black and nonblack. But the field is so g-loaded that only lies or its effective abolition (c.f. Goettingen under the Nazis) could make it equitable.

        1. The letter g is used to denote general intelligence. G-loading refers to the importance of innate intelligence on a particular task.

            1. Yes, I’m assuming that the hereditarian hypothesis is largely correct.

              Yet even if it’s not, given current educational achievement, more opportunities to study math would probably help the usual suspects (like Chinese, Korean, Indian students) more than blacks. (Scouting in professional sports might be a helpful comparison since it also often increases inequity without being so controversial.)

      1. David Blackwell obtained a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1941, but Princeton University did not accept him on their campus. Berkeley considered offering him a position in math, but apparently decided not to after the wife of a faculty member did not want to entertain him in her home. As a result he applied only to HBCU’s. Only after an invitation to speak at the International Congress of Mathematics in 1954 and the creation of a Statistics department at Berkeley did Blackwell finally obtain a permanent position at Berkeley in Statistics.

        It is easier to talk about racism in math in the 1940’s than it is today, but it still exists.

        1. You have to go back 80 years for this example? And yes, of course “racism exists” in every field in that there is at least a few racists in every field. But the contention is that mathematics is STRUCTURALLY of “systemically” racist–and for that I have seen no evidence, nor have you provided any.

        2. Are you kidding? Advanced Mathematics is so difficult that I find it impossible to believe that anyone who excels at it would be discriminated against by anyone within the field, most of whom would be delighted to find another who is as passionate about it as they are. Without at least one example your claim is lame.

  12. Are you all really so fragile that you can’t abide being told that the AMS is a racist organization? Proof – just look around you. Where are the black professors? How many black people do you see at the AMS conferences? How are they treated?
    Wait what – you never noticed?
    There are many, many, many qualified black mathematicians. Why are they not there?

    1. You are making the familiar mistake of equating a lack of proportional representation with racism, and we know the issue with that. There are many professions with disproportionately higher numbers of women than men; do you want to impute that to bigotry against men?

      Your “data” consist of the simple assertion that “there are many, many, many qualified black mathematicians”. Perhaps. But the issue is whether, given lower average math scores among African-Americans, the pipeline to success still contains an unequal proportions of high-end mathematicians—those who sit at the right tail of the distribution. The alternative hypothesis is that due to cultural deprivation and poorer education, African-Americans don’t reach the end of the pipeline nearly as often.

      As for fragility, you’re using ad hominems here. You give no evidence that the AMS is racist, you just assert it and say we can’t bear to hear it. One can assert that any organization is racist, but you have to adduce more than differential proportions to show that–you have to show a consistent and persistent pattern of racist behavior in the organization that stunts the careers of black mathematicians.

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