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Teaching mathematics for racial justice

By Eric Gutstein

Illustrator: Henrik Drescher

illustration: HENRIK DRESCHER

So one question leads to another question, and then you have to answer four more, and those four questions lead to eight more questions. So I think that [racial disparity in mortgage lending] is not racism, but that leads me to the conclusion that if it was not racism, then why do they pay more money to whites? Is that racism?

— Vanessa,* grade seven

Vanessa wrote these words on a mathematics project I taught to middle school students titled, “Mortgage Loans — Is Racism a Factor?” To begin the project, I had the students read a Chicago Tribune article that analyzed mortgage rejection rates for African Americans, Latinos, and whites in 68 different metropolitan areas. The students mathematically analyzed data and wrote essays about whether racism was a factor, using data and arguments from the article. The mortgage project is an example of how I use mathematics to teach for racial justice.

A central part of teaching for social justice is to work for a society where racism is reduced and, eventually, eliminated. But racism is so deeply embedded in the history, consciousness, and fabric of U.S. life that to remove it will take long-term, concentrated efforts. We need to understand racism, its genesis and manifestations, and also build schools and classrooms that explicitly promote racial justice (and that are linked to anti-racist social movements on a broader scale).

I have occasionally taught middle school mathematics in a Chicago public school, located in a low-income, Mexican immigrant community, as part of my job as a university-based mathematics educator. I use ideas of teaching for social justice along with helping students develop mathematical power (being able to reason and communicate mathematically, develop their own mathematical thinking, and solve real-world problems in multiple and novel ways) — and pass the “gatekeeping” standardized tests.

Through studying these experiences and other learnings, I have come to certain ideas about teaching mathematics for racial justice. In my view, racial justice curriculum should provide students opportunities to:

  • Develop an understanding of the sociopolitical, cultural, economic, and historical dynamics of racism, along with their interconnections
  • Appreciate the complexity of different forms of racism (structural, institutional, individual).
  • Develop and use analytical tools to understand and dissect racism (e.g., mathematical tools such as data analysis, graphing, mathematical modeling of social phenomena).
  • Support views, develop coherent arguments, and engage in group discussions to develop individual and collective analyses.
  • Develop an appreciation for multiple, alternative, and competing perspectives while constructing their own independent knowledge.
  • Become active, to involve them in actual struggles when possible and appropriate, and allow them to use their analytical tools to cut through and confront myths and historical inaccuracies.

Another important issue for teachers is that classroom cultures supporting investigations of complex and emotional issues like racism have to be co-created with students over time. One cannot just “plop down” potentially volatile issues without creating conditions for students to take seriously their roles as learners and knowledge creators. Students need to be able to listen to others and find their own voices as well. In highly regulated urban schools, creating classroom norms that support this type of work can be challenging and takes time, because such a culture contradicts students’ expectations of what teaching “should be” — and students are not always so quick to accept these new routines and new topics of discussion.

This last point is particularly important when white teachers are teaching about racism and for racial justice with students of color. As a white teacher of students of color, I consider the following questions: Why should students of color, who know firsthand the pain and horror of racism, necessarily share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a classroom with a white teacher? What difficulties exist when teaching about racism across color lines, given sociopolitical and cultural power differentials in a racist society?

Since my students have direct experience with racism, and my knowledge is more analytical, historical, and observational, how do we meet in mutual respect to deepen our collective understanding of the impact of racism and how to fight better against it? How do I better understand how my students perceive and experience racism and other forms of discrimination so that I can create opportunities for them to better comprehend the nature of these injustices — all while teaching mathematics in a high-stakes, urban school district focused on “accountability,” regimentation, and discipline?

I have found it challenging, but possible, to try to enact the above principles in the classroom. What follows is a lesson where I tried to put these ideas into practice.

An Example of Racial Justice Curriculum

In December 2002, I gave my students the mortgage project. (See box for sample questions.) The entire project is available at www.teachersforjustice.org. This lesson was challenging because the article from the Chicago Tribune was confusing, the mathematics was complicated, and terms were used without definition. But it was clear that in Chicago, African Americans were rejected five times as often as whites, and Latinos were rejected for mortgage loans three times as often as whites. This was true across all income levels, negating income alone as an explanation.

The project took almost three weeks of homework and in-class time. Students worked mainly in groups, although all wrote individual essays. I had most of the students rewrite their essays one or two times, usually because they did not adequately support arguments, and most groups reworked other parts of the project as well. We ended with two days of students reading their essays aloud and trying to arrive at individual and group understandings. Throughout the lesson, students were extremely engaged in the project.

When I look at their projects, essays, and journals, several themes are apparent. First, many students learned that it was difficult to know if racism was a factor. Many students changed their minds, often more than once, after rethinking, further questioning and investigating, and listening to their peers’ essays. I considered this important, because too often students (and adults) gravitate to simplistic “all-or-nothing” solutions and overlook real-world complexities. Most appeared comfortable with ambiguity and the realization that they needed more data to answer the question. For example, Jesse wrote:

[Racism] is a factor because white applicants no matter what their income was, they were always denied less times than African Americans and Latinos. And it is also is a factor because the ratio of applicants denied between African Americans and whites is 5:1 and between Latinos and whites is 3:1. That data shows that racism is a factor.

There are always two sides to a story. Racism is not a factor because we do not know whether or not those people had bad credit or were unemployed. It could be possible that a lot of those people could have been in debt. Even though the banks want to make loans they also want to make sure that they get paid.

So with the data provided it is very hard to conclude whether or not racism is a factor when it comes to obtaining a mortgage loan in the Chicago area.

Manny went back and forth several times, and his final journal entry was:

My view is that racism is a factor. First I was unsure if it was or wasn’t so I did an essay saying it wasn’t but at the end changed my mind that it is. I have learned some things about mortgages. I learned that Blacks have a harder time than Latinos. It’s basically from really light skin to dark. Blacks have five times more trouble to get a mortgage which is a lot more times compared to whites. Latinos don’t have it as bad as blacks, but not as easy as whites. My only question is: Is racism also in job applications?

And Nilda wrote:

Was this project to confuse us and really make us think? Because that’s what it did. After our last [whole-class] discussion on Friday, everyone was talking about what we had discussed. In my first article I said that I thought racism was not a factor, after our second discussion I thought racism was a factor, but I think that we don’t really know. Even though the rate for Blacks was 5Xs higher than whites in being rejected, that does not necessarily mean it is racism, it could be because of their debt, income. Or maybe it could be racism.

An interesting point Nilda and others made is that students continued the discussions outside of class, testifying to their engagement — a typical written comment was, “me and some of the girls have been talking about the conversation. . . .”

In addition to discovering that “one question leads to another,” the students also constructed alternate explanations through this process. Vanessa wondered if racism accounted for income disparity, Jesse posed whether racism was a factor in job applications, and Nilda proposed debt or income as other possible causes of the rejection-rate disparity. Students did not base these ideas so much on the article, but rather on their own knowledge and experiences. Common explanations were “bad credit,” “less education,” “worse jobs,” and “no papers” (undocumented). But those explanations often just led to other questions, as Carmen wrote:

I do not think racism is a factor in mortgages. At first I thought it was but not until I got to question number seven, when I defended Bank One [they had to take the bank’s position in this question], I said that if they were to ask me if racism was a factor in mortgages I would say something like this, “Racism is totally not a factor in mortgages, in fact the reason why a lot of Black and Latinos are being rejected is because they have less collateral.” In case y’all don’t know what collateral is I’ll try explaining it. Collateral is something you have/own that can substitute [for] money (the loan) if you can’t pay — somebody asked me why whites had more collateral and I said because they have been here (in U.S.) longer. Then that one person asked me why didn’t Blacks have more collateral if they’ve been here longer, and to that question I would say that since a long time ago whites owned lots of things and blacks were not able because they were slaves.

Carmen laid bare some of the complexity but seemed to be unaware of it. She essentially named racism as a factor in African Americans lacking collateral (wealth), and hence their difficulties in securing mortgages, but did not make all the connections. A possible question to ask her might be, “Since Blacks having less collateral is a factor in not getting mortgages — is racism a factor after all?” This theme, of one question leading to another, arose throughout the project, and I also promoted it by asking students to generate their own questions.

Despite my attempts, I felt that many students did not grasp the complicated socio-historical reasons for the racial disparities in lending. Carmen came closest, but overall, I was unable to help them understand the relationships. Even though at the end of the project I gave students a handout comparing Black and white income and wealth (assets) in the United States, we didn’t spend enough time working through the meaning and situating it historically. It was the end of the project, right before winter break; students had been working hard and were tired, and I planned to return to it later in the year. Nevertheless, this was a weakness in the project.

During these discussions, the students’ own stereotypes surfaced. Two students read aloud their essays, stating that African Americans had “dirty houses,” and suggested that as a reason why they were rejected at higher rates. This sparked excellent discussions about the issues, and the general consensus emerged that one person of color cannot be seen as an example for the whole. Several students reacted, both verbally and in writing, and identified the stereotypes placed on themselves, as Latinos, as a point of unity. Laura wrote:

That’s a stereotype. I got kind of mad, because it’s like people thinking Mexicans are lazy. There’s this “famous” thing/picture of a Mexican guy with a sombrero hiding his face, his head on his knees, and sleeping. That’s a stereotype also. It doesn’t mean it has to be true. . . .

That unity was important because it provided a basis for students to understand common oppression. This in turn can lead to students seeing themselves and others as mutual allies, creating conditions for them to act.

Making Connections

A project like this represents one way to teach mathematics for racial justice. I think it’s important that students began to go beneath the surface and grapple with the cultural, economic, and historical roots of racism. The questions they asked were attempts to make sense of complicated data and a complex social phenomenon (racism) that many adults have trouble with. They did not, for the most part, fully differentiate between individual racism (e.g., a white loan officer rejecting an applicant of color because of her race) and structural racism (e.g., why African Americans have less collateral). Nor was I able to help them understand the sociohistorical context. But I believe this awareness is part of a developmental process — after all, we cannot just “tell” people an analysis, they have to construct their own interpretations. And they did begin to question and make connections.

I wanted students to raise questions, discuss publicly, and seriously study these issues. The evidence was there that they achieved these goals, while learning mathematics and using mathematics as an analytical tool with which to understand racism — even if some of their questions remained unanswered. In addition, I wanted to learn about students’ perspectives and life experiences in order to be clearer about my own role in the struggles for racial justice, and to a certain degree, most were open and willing to share their lives.

Above all, I wanted the students to have an inquiring, critical perspective. As Tita wrote, “From this project I learned that you should question everything. Like that to have a better project you should question all your answers.

That’s what I did.”

Eric Gutstein ( gutstein@uic.edu ) teaches mathematics education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is active in Teachers for Social Justice in Chicago. *All Students’ names have been changed.