The kind of problems black mathematicians wish didn’t need solving

Stories that illustrate the barriers that black mathematicians have faced in recent history.


The lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, which was an ancient centre of learning. Image: public domain

This post is part of black mathematician month.

John Derbyshire, columnist for the National Review, wrote an essay implying that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites: only one out of six blacks is smarter than the average white. Derbyshire pulled these figures from a region near his large intestine.

One of Derbyshire’s claims, however, is true: there are no black winners of the Fields medal, the ‘Nobel prize of mathematics’. According to Derbyshire, this is “civilisationally consequential”.

Derbyshire implies that the absence of a black winner means that blacks are incapable of genius. His ilk are only able to sustain such lies because 150 years of racial terrorism have ensured that few dare to challenge them, and, when we do, the consequences are dire. His ilk can get away with thinking that Euclid and Eratosthenes were not Africans working in Africa (even “sub-Saharan Africa”, if they want to make that idiotic distinction), but Greeks with blond hair and alabaster complexion (much like Jesus).

In reality, black mathematicians face career-retarding racism which white Fields medallists never encounter. It’s hard to focus on abstract algebra after Belgian King Leopold has hacked off your hands. Three stories will suffice to make this point.

The first involves Saunders Mac Lane, one of the most influential algebraists of the last century. He co-authored, with my Harvard thesis advisor Garrett Birkhoff, a text that enthralled me as a first-year undergraduate. I first encountered lattice theory, which for a long time I loved more than anything in life, in that book.

In 1951, Mac Lane was president of the Mathematical Association of America. Vanderbilt University hosted an MAA conference, and three black mathematicians wished to attend. Mac Lane barred them from doing so: Vanderbilt University was in racially-segregated Tennessee, and Mac Lane did not want to offend his hosts.

The second story involves David Blackwell, one of the few black mathematicians whom white mathematicians acknowledge as great―or, I should say, “black American mathematicians”, since Euclid, Eratosthenes, and other African mathematicians outshone Europe’s brightest stars for millennia. I mention these names again only because it seems to me a peculiarly European characteristic to assign ideas to people. (Professor Wosene Yefru of Tennessee State University told me that Pythagoras’ theorem is a thousand years older than Pythagoras.)

Eminent statistician David Blackwell. Image: George M Bergman, licence GFDL.

I first met Blackwell in 1995, in the common room of Berkeley’s maths department, one of the few times two blacks had ever been in the room, I imagine.

Blackwell obtained his PhD in mathematics when he was only 22. While he had a fellowship to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, the American home of Einstein and the other-worldly logician Kurt Gödel, nearby Princeton University refused to allow Blackwell, because he was black, to attend lectures. Although he later became the first black member of the National Academy of Sciences, where a colleague said, “He would come into a field that had been well-studied and find something really new that was remarkable”, the University of California at Berkeley’s maths department would not hire Blackwell on account of his race. (A European later asked Blackwell to join the statistics department.)

My third story is not that, in 2002, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan; the racist, terrorist organization, sent me death threats, forcing me to leave my home and my permanent job at Vanderbilt University, where I obtained tenure. Others, such as Barrett Brown, in the Guardian and in his book, Hot, Fat, and Clouded, have recounted how Vanderbilt University chancellor Gordon Gee and vice chancellor Michael Schoenfeld (now at Duke University) took the side of the Klan supporters.

My story is not that police at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology detained me on suspicion of being a bank robber. Within weeks of my arrival at MIT as a visiting associate professor of mathematics, I was on the T, their subway, or underground train. My memory is that the train was stopped at the MIT station. I saw several policemen on the platform looking at me. I knew what was coming next, so I held up the book I was reading, which was entitled Enumerative Combinatorics. Soon enough, the doors opened and about six policemen came in, grabbed my arm, and escorted me off the train. On the platform, I shouted that I was an associate professor of mathematics at MIT, repeatedly, so that passengers could hear. The policemen wanted me to stop but I did not. I gave them numbers of MIT personnel to call to confirm this, but the police did not release me for about twenty minutes. (An email I wrote at the time said five minutes, but my recollection is more like twenty.)  The police said I resembled a bank robber.

Professor Jonathan David Farley in the cover of The Crisis (May/June, 2006). Used with permission of the author.

I got back on the train at the end of this detention (I think I must have gotten onto the train at the MIT stop), and several people gave me their names and numbers if I wanted help in prosecuting the police. I contacted them, but only one person replied, if I recall correctly.

I decided in the end not to pursue the case because at the time I was being harassed by Southern supporters of Nathan Bedford Forrest (an early leader of the KKK) and I did not want my name to be in the newspapers. I had asked MIT to get an apology from the Cambridge, Massachusetts police, since it is in MIT’s interests not to have its professors harassed, but MIT did not do this.

Instead, my third story is that, in 2009, I was an invited speaker at the Counterterrorism Research Lab, along with US President Obama’s soon-to-be cybersecurity czar. At one point, a different American brought up the American civil war, and said―angrily―that the pro-black-slavery Confederacy had the right to secede from the United States.

I objected as politely as I could.

The American exploded, at the end of the conference firing off a chain of expletives in front of the 80-person audience. The head of the CRL blamed me for the man’s outburst, and the job we had been discussing disappeared. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory likewise revoked a job offer after they heard about the Klan attack. A division head of the National Academies whom I believe I had met at the house of the Austrian ambassador ceased communication with me when he saw my essay in the Guardian about racism.

Before I was 30 I had solved decades-old problems posed by the world-renowned Richard Stanley at MIT and others. At 32 the Klan supporters’ attack sidetracked me. Merely taking positions any sane African-American (really, any sane civilised person) could be expected to take was enough to spark this response, replete with credible threats of violence, by individuals and organisations with tens of thousands of members and now over a million dollars at their disposal. Probably I never would have won a Fields, but one must be under 40 to win a Fields, and I have not had time to focus on Fields medal-worthy pursuits.

Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and two entire paid sabbatical years pales besides being shot for Skittles, so I do not complain. Other blacks fared worse−think of the slaves.  At least I have the opportunity to be a maths professor: think of Malcolm X’s observation about West Indian Archie.

I am grateful to superintendent Ronald Ross for hiring me as an educational consultant. I am especially grateful to Dr Asamoah Nkwanta, who hired me at Morgan State University, for quite simply rescuing me so I could begin to have a normal life, leaving open the possibility of getting married, since for that it helps to have a reliable income. (Once, I was invited to speak at McGill University─an American who is now a maths professor there laughed at me years before because, he said, he thought I sounded like a white person─and an undergraduate wanted to interview me for a radio station. When she heard about my employment situation, she laughed and said something like, “So basically you don’t have a job”, and, suddenly, she decided not to interview me in my hotel room but in a café!)  I also take responsibility for my own bad decisions: I foolishly rejected a suggestion by Harvard professor S Allen Counter that I take an assistant professorship at Harvard that, I suppose, he was suggesting he could try to arrange.

The reader will be relieved to know that this ends my list of excuses. People have done good mathematics in far harsher conditions. I believe in positivity: I yet intend to solve Serre’s homological multiplicity conjecture on positivity. Until then, I let Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould reply to Derbyshire:

“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”

What gives me hope is that race relations are not what they were in 2002. The National Review fired Derbyshire (although it showcased another vicious racist, Charles Murray, on its website). Whites helped my career, putting money where their mouth was: Birkhoff’s student George Markowsky, Austria’s Günter Pilz (nicht zu vergessen Denmark’s Pia Zaller), the great Henry Pogorzelski of the Research Institute for Mathematics (Maine), business partners Peren Linn and Mira Alden; I had lunch with Nobel laureate James Watson and his wife, who then invited me to their New York apartment to discuss my non-profit, Girls Equal Math; a philanthropist who was mentioned in People Magazine met me at a café and said she wanted to help Girls Equal Math, Inc; and a billionaire phoned me several weeks ago to ask me what I was working on (I said I was going to resolve something that University of North Carolina professor Robert Proctor called a “complete mystery”, simultaneously solving, I suspected, a problem of Dartmouth College professor Sergi Elizalde)―while Blackwell refused to speak with me for even one minute. Perhaps race is asymptotically approaching irrelevance.

At last.

Parts of this essay appeared in the Guardian.

Jonathan Farley is a professor of mathematics and a winner of the Harvard Foundation’s “Scientist of the Year” medal. He has held positions at MIT, Caltech and Harvard. He is the co-founder of Peren Linn Fashion, which makes maths-themed fashion for girls and women.

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