So I promised in an earlier post that I would talk about the anti-racist mathematical movement as I understand it (which is admittedly not well yet).

At a certain level, it seems to be a web of issues and I will mention them and then leave them without support or defense. One complaint is that mathematics is taught from the perspective of how it came to be understood in Europe, which often times ignores that virtually all of elementary mathematics was independently discovered by every culture in history (Chinese mathematics in particular often beat key European discoveries by a millennium or more) and that mathematical discoveries that Europeans knew were often the product of Arab, Indian, and Egyptian influences but we often don't highlight those contributions as such. This bleeds over into the same sorts of "dead white man" issues that literature and the physical sciences have faced over the years -- both that mathematical discovery is closed and that people of color have no talent for it anyways, which will discourage a student of color from mastering the material and furthermore from contemplating a career in a mathematical field. And that, in turn, is connected to all of the other ways that we fail to expect mathematical mastery (let alone excellence or prodigy) from students of color.

As I say, there is no lack of very important discussions to be had there. And my role in those various discussion would range from pulling out my cheerleader uniform to mildly defending the status quo all the way to heavy skepticism. I cannot help but become more informed as my own education continues, so perhaps I will someday come to know enough to speak on some of them in the future. In the mean time, I will speak of my first-hand experience with an issue here that I do know.

(For those who haven't been following along at home, my experience is as a math tutor for students studying for the GED and other related math tests at around the 8th grade level in the United States. My students are mostly black and Latino, nearly all female, I suspect virtually all living in poverty, and a significant number attempting to overcome learning disabilities and similar challenges.)

I will illustrate with an actual example that happened in the past week. About half of my students are taking a formal GED math class that my tutoring sessions are intended to supplement, and this past week they took the Official Practice Test. (A sufficiently high grade in this test would allow them to "graduate" to being allowed to retake the Math portion of the GED.) Here is a relevant portion of a question from that test. I won't display the rest of the question because the last thing I need is a cease-and-desist letter from the ACE, but trust me that an understanding of this sentence is a fundamental part of solving the problem. Again, I want to highlight that this is not a third-party product but an actual question generated by the American Council on Education that is a part of the gate-keeping process for GED diplomas.

"A restaurant menu lists 5 appetizers, 6 main dishes, and 4 desserts that are specialties of the house."

When I reviewed this question in my class, one of my best students shot up her hand and said "I'm sorry, but what does 'appetizer' mean? I'm sure I've seen the word before -- I mean, it's not like I've never been to a restaurant -- but I don't know if I've ever had one." And a few of us kind of talked out that it was like a plate of potato skins or chicken wings or shrimp cocktails that everyone at the table could share while they were waiting for the main dishes to be served, and she seemed to get it (although it was an embarrassing topic for her so I can't be certain).

But you see what happened there. If you're a middle-class white kid like me whose family ate out at sit-down restaurants on the average of once a week, you're answering an easier question than that student of mine did. Because we know that an appetizer isn't a specific sort of main dish, so we just multiply those three numbers together and move on. My student has to go looking deeper for contextual clues to figure out how to process these numbers. I can accept the argument that those clues are buried deeper in the problem, but there is a larger probability that she's going to miss those clues, and even if she does find them she will have less time and less morale than someone who "just knows" these non-mathematical facts.

And this is the sort of thing that you find quite a bit of once you're looking for it (and it is even easier when you have students who are comfortable enough to "admit" that it's their fault that they don't understand poorly-worded questions). How many days are there in June? What is the standard restaurant tip? What is an "at large" delegate? What does "reservoir" mean? Some of these questions are less unfair than others, and reading comprehension and setting up word problems are truly valuable skills that need to be tested. But when the word problems that you set up are biased against some classes or cultures, you really don't get to then dump on those classes and cultures for underperforming on the test.
I should start getting used to talking about me, especially since I'm doing some interesting stuff that I'll probably have to be talking about before long.

I've been spending the last handful of weeks as a volunteer math tutor for the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, helping folk to get their GED and qualify for an LPN license and similar sorts of job training and college prep opportunities. The organization I am working for is a non-profit affiliated with one of our local state universities that does all this training tuition-free for qualified prospective students (and it seems like pretty liberal standards to establish the economic need) and it really seems to do a lot of good in helping people to chart out a better future. For me as well: it's not a paid position and doesn't even count as field work for a Masters in Education (even though the affiliated university is the one at which I'll be studying), but it'll be a leg up to have the experience in both the schmoozing sense and in being actually prepared for a room full of adolescents.

And so far it's been going really well. The staff is thrilled to get all the help they can, and they've been very helpful and welcoming. The students have been very generous with their praise as well, and even though there is selection bias in my hearing primarily from the sorts of student that I am helping, I can also objectively see that they are growing from one class to the next. That has more to do with my students being eager to be taught and willing to invest the time and brainwork than in the role that I'm playing, but again I am a critical catalyst in that reaction and if I don't give myself credit for my part then I can hardly expect people down the road to independently offer me future opportunities.

At the same time, it has been very challenging and I have yet to even comprehend the scope of the challenges. Math anxiety is a significant hurdle, and I don't have any specific strategies for dealing with it. (Nor do I have any personal experience with it at this level no matter how much I know about other sorts of anxiety.) I have also come to appreciate that people who talk about anti-racism math have their thumb on a very real and important problem. Again, I see it when I see it, but I'm still soaking in it and I've got to figure out how to confront that. 95% of my students are women, 90% are people of color, and I'll go ahead and guess that at least 95% of them aren't commuting from my upper middle-class neighborhood. In short, the only thing that comes easily to me in this class is the math.

But those last two paragraphs are both true and coexist in balance. My best isn't good enough, and my students deserve even better than my best. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't do what I can do. The alternative to me teaching this class isn't Jaime Escalente taking over the class for me; the alternative is no class at all. I need to fail a little bit better every day, because a lot of people are still going to succeed in spite of me because of me.
Two stories about Michelle Obama in the news today. Two!

As rivka points out, the AP ran a story about the dress the First Lady wore at the state dinner that the reporter described as "flesh-colored", and runs a picture next to it that makes it very very clear that it is not the color of flesh at all. Sheesh, it's been almost fifty years since Crayola picked up the clue phone on this one, so what the hell is going on at the AP editor's desk? Frankly, it seems to me that even a healthy white person oughtn't have flesh of that particular shade.

And I refuse to look, but according to the news, if you did a Google image search of Michelle Obama this morning, the top result would have been a crudely altered picture that portrays her as a monkey. Again, you can't make me look. Google initially resisted calls to fix this problem, saying 'We have, in general, a bias toward free speech', and the only reason the problem was remedied from what I can gather is that the original blog took down the image (which isn't too surprising if, in fact, it was viewed and linked by enough people in the world to get it to the top of Google's scoring algorithm).

I like free speech too, but that isn't what this is about. If someone does an image search for Michelle Obama, and Google's top scored image is not a picture of Michelle Obama, then there is something wrong with Google's scoring algorithm, and pretending that you are not responsible for the relevance of your search results is highly disingenuous. By all means, keep a link to the picture and tag it so that it does very well if someone searches for "Michelle Obama racist monkey infantile". But you've managed the web search so that the entire top page of Obama's search is filled with non-pranks, and the rest of your searches need to catch up.
So yesterday, I found myself acquainted with this 1973 "flamewar" between Eleanor Cameron and Roald Dahl over the utter lack of literary merit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which ultimately led to a revision. And, not an hour later, I was excavating a dark corner of my house when I came upon a crate filled with childrens books, including Cameron's The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and a first edition of Dahl's most famous work. So, in case anyone was confused about whose side to take, let me summarize my findings.

Cameron rules, Dahl drools.

"So I shipped them all over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely. They are wonderful workers. They all speak English now. The love dancing and music. They are always making up songs. [...] They still wear the same kind of clothes they wore in the jungle. They insist upon that, The man, as you can see for yourselves across the river, wear only deerskins. The women wear leaves, and the children wear nothing at all."

Funny, but I don't recall Johnny Depp and Deep Roy acting out that part of the story. Fortunately, my visualization is aided by a lovely Joseph Schindelman line drawing of not-at-all-large wooden crates with eyeholes and legholes drilled into them so that they looked in places like rectilinear insects capering around to amuse me. DAMN IT, this is why I wasn't horrified when I was taught about transatlantic slave ships. I appreciate whimsy, but this is whitewash.

I used to think that Roald Dahl was a moralist of our age, but that was before I read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and The Witches. After that, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Dahl is a petty man who works out his frustrations on fictional characters created to have flaws that ordinary people in civilized society would have the strength to tolerate. There are folks who argue that the 2005 movie was better than 1971 movie because it was more faithful to the book; in truth, that is not a small part of the reason that it was inferior. David Seltzer deserves an enormous amount of praise for the insight and courage to make a movie that was ultimately much less troublesome than the source. Including, I might add, a magnificent bastard who is more likely to quote Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde than rattle off four consecutive simple sentences.
I keep on thinking "Oh, I'm late to this story, so I'll keep my thoughts to myself." But, damn, the story has legs, so in I'll jump.

The one thing that I have no interest in is whether James Crowley is a racist. I don't know the answer to those questions (nearly nobody does), and moreover I don't care. Like Jay Smooth says, it's the Bermuda Triangle of conversations. If he is a racist, then he should have the professionalism to leave it at home when he is an on-duty police officer. And even if he would have arrested a white law-abiding person of interest in a felony investigation who was uncooperative and belligerent, then he shouldn't. Let's hold him accountable for his specific actions instead of laying out a rhetorical snare so broad that he and the Cambridge Police Department can slip out of it.

I am sorely disappointed by Crowley. I don't have all the facts either, but assuming that the most charitable version of the story is the incident report that Crowley filed (the quotations that follows are directly from that report), it portrays an abuse of power in at least two different areas. The first is a failure to identify yourself when asked. By Crowley's own admission, he "began" to supply the information several times and then switched to a refusal to answer because "I had provided it at his request two separate times." In other words, he knew that he had not provided the information. So you pull out a piece of paper and a pen and write down your name and badge number and the incident report number and hand it to him; you've provided the information even though he's still yelling at you. The second is what clearly seems to be a deliberate escalation to get him arrested instead of defusing the situation. Advising someone "to calm down", um, never works, the repeated tactics to move the conversation outside is evidently necessary because someone isn't engaged in disorderly conduct if they're in their house, and FFS you can defuse the situation by getting in your car and driving away along with the rest of the law enforcement community that is backing you up. The police are the majority of the disorder in the neighborhood, and the fact that you couldn't defuse the situation short of arresting and handcuffing a middle-aged man who needs a cane to walk speaks very poorly of you and the department that trained you.

But I don't get Gates either. I'm not going to tell the African American community or anyone else that the police are your pals, because they're not. They're not my pals either. Neither are they our masters. What they are is a necessary tool to allow us to live in a free society without it devolving into anarchism or barbarism. When a neighbor suspects that your house is being burgled and they send the police to investigate, that is a good thing. Not good like a trip to Disneyland, but good like a trip to the dentist. There is some discomfort, and maybe there are some demeaning instructions if you care to think of it that way, but it's someone who is on your team. And when I say "on your team", I mean both that he wants to keep people from breaking into your house (again), and he wants to get off your property as soon as possible. And the more efficiently you show him your ID and chuckle about how you were breaking into your own house, the sooner you get on with your day and he gets back to the doughnut shop. If you're feeling particularly sociable, you can thank him for arriving so quickly and wish him luck in catching a real criminal next time, or even introduce yourself to your neighbor who is standing outside. If dealing with a police officer doesn't leave you in a sociable mood, then don't. But the fact that this took more than three minutes (plus whatever he had to pay Charles Ogletree) is entirely on Gates' shoulders. There is a huge plate of problems between law enforcement and minority communities, but unloading on the beat cop standing in front of you right now doesn't seem like an auspicious way of creating a better world.

The whole thing seems like two guys having rough days who decide to play an alpha male heirarchy contest. The African-American man plays the "do you know who I am?" card, the preening cop calls the bluff and loses. Then in the next round, the President weighs in but is batted down by the police unions. The only really good idea I've heard is that Obama has invited Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer. Maybe he should declare August to be National Calm Down And Share A Cold One With Someone Who Pisses You Off Month.


Matthew Daly

December 2012

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