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What It's Like to Be a Black Mathematician (nytimes.com)
110 points by mykowebhn 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 144 comments

This mathematician is not stupid. I would be inclined to believe he understands statistics/anecdotes/academia better than you reading this right now.

We only get a small glimpse into the intricacies of his world view and life, and this is what he has chosen to share. This is the story he is telling.

Ask yourself why someone in this position would tell this story based on years of lived experience. Do you believe him? Or do you believe keyboard warriors in some of the comments under this article diminishing his perspective with "but what about"-ism and the like?

I am black and studied math in school. The 'leaky pipeline' exists to some extent. Racist people exist even if you, reading this, are not racist.

I just want to support your comment -- I've known "this mathematician" (Edray Goins) personally for two decades, work on similar mathematics to him, and I wrote research letters supporting his tenure and promotion at Purdue. He is definitely NOT stupid, his research is extremely interesting, and his ability to get undergraduates involved in research level mathematics is outstanding. People do racist things, and this is overall very self-destructive for our communities; it helps very much that people like Edray have a voice.

May I ask you a question?

Not for the sake of argument or anything - I'm genuinely curious.

Yes, racist people exist. No doubt here. As do exist many other nasties: dishonest salesmen, stupid teachers, dumb police officers, incompetent doctors - you name it. They make the headlines, but I firmly believe there's not that many of them and most of people are fully adequate and reasonable.

From the article it sounds like there's a full faculty of racist bigots who see maintaining white supremacy as their primary goal. He's universally hated just for the color of his skin and there are few to no people who treat him as equal.

Is it really that bad?

There is no place in this NYT profile where Goins makes any claim about a "full faculty of racist bigots who see maintaining white supremacy as their primary goal", so that's not a reasonable question to ask.

Looks like you've dismissed my question on technicality.

I have to admit this is not exactly the answer I was looking for.

Not that it matters, but just because my nerd brain won't let this go until I type this out: refuting the core premise of your question isn't a "technicality". The correct answer to "is it really that bad", in this case, is "NaN fssst bzzrt pop!"

Most racism is not that overt, or even conscious. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if most people who behaved in a racist manner didn't view themselves as racist in the slightest.

Also by definition, judgement biases underlying racism are common across people. There's no more racism in whites or republicans, rationalization is different. Splitting the world in racist and no racist is simplistic and poor argumentation.

> by definition judgement[sic] biases underlying racism are common across people

0) We never agreed on the definition of "judgment biases", so please do not use the phrase "by definition". Your definition differs from mine.


>A very high percent of any race dates only inside their racial/ethnic group. And so on. It's natural preferences.

Are you making this claim or is there evidence that supports it? Would be interested to see a study on that

While I can not bring up the research paper from memory, there is such evidence but it more funnier than that. Going directly by vague recollection of the lecture, there is a bias towards X distances of relativeness, something like 3rd or 4th cousin, where you get a statistical bias in a population. You also get this in animal studies. If I recall correctly it was part of when they talked about gene selection theory, and also (very vaguely recalled) a short aside into game theory for maximized gene transmission with minimal risk for genetic errors.

Technically this has nothing to do with racial and ethnic groups, but as an outcome it correlates.

(Edit: Remembering an other detail. The human study was a olfaction test where participants felt more attracted to the sweat of said relativeness. It add to the (in my view) comical aspect of it all).

How is it possible for anything to emerge from nature which is not natural? So far there is little evidence that anything humans do is above just a bunch of natural responses to external stimuli. However just because something is natural does not make it beneficial or desirable

I don't know how this relates to my comment, sorry. I'm asking if the guy above me had seen evidence that substantiates his claim that there's a significant preference to people dating within their own race

EDIT: Got rid of part of my post that had enough information in it that could be tied to people in real life.


It doesn't help that West Lafayette is a very racist place in my experience. I'm white and a native speaker of American English. On my first day of teaching at Purdue I introduced myself to the class and a student asked, "Are you an American? Do you speak English?" At the time West Lafayette had a confusing road system for a small town. Lots of 5-way intersections and one way streets. I was late to a dental appointment and apologized to the dentist's secretary. I explained that I had a hard time figuring out how to get to the place. She responded, "Yeah, the road system here was designed by a drunk Indian." I'm certain living in Indiana exacerbated the situation.

It is also not helping that there actually is such a thing as "token X". A less discussed side effect of affirmative action.

I don't think that's the thing that's 'not helping', here.

There is such a thing as the "token gaijin" at Japanese companies - the foreigner who can show to visitors how international company this is. Generally very little influence or path of progress. Also just the knowledge of this phenomenon can cause self-doubt for the individual.

White people office workers Japan are of course not the same as black mathematicians in the U.S., but I don't believe that it's not contributing to the problem if it occurs.

I just don't think 'my prejudices are actually true' is the conclusion to draw from 'tokenism exists', that is all.

you and me don't, but many do. It is a fact that affirmative action undermines the claim of competence of minorities in the workplace. It also a problem to be addressed. Whether or not it is right to think that has little influence of the fact that many people reach that conclusion.

What prejudices did avip claim were confirmed by tokenism?

Ok, and?

People from poor demographics in general are discriminated against in various ways.

Want to learn math but come from a poor neighborhood? Good luck. You’re probably locked in a school system with bad teachers and few if any math courses beyond calculus.

Even if you’re talented you probably know 0 people that can help you. Now your growth is prematurely stunted.

That kid from a better off family that shows talent in math? Probably get recognized for it from an early age and gets tutors and advanced training. Probably already completed proof based courses in analysis, algebra by the time they completed high school. They get into better schools and have ahead start. Even if they are just as talented as you the poor kid.

Want to learn math but come from a poor neighborhood? Good luck. You’re probably locked in a school system with bad teachers and few if any math courses beyond calculus.

I've read and listened to a number of accounts about how peers in poor neighborhoods are the biggest barrier to academic achievement.

Even if you’re talented you probably know 0 people that can help you. Now your growth is prematurely stunted.

Or worse, your peers punish you for your ability. In my personal experience, they can even tell you that you are sexually inadequate and somehow less essentially human. This feedback is all the worse, because it is genuinely believed by the one giving it.

That kid from a better off family that shows talent in math? Probably get recognized for it from an early age and gets tutors and advanced training. Probably already completed proof based courses in analysis, algebra by the time they completed high school. They get into better schools and have ahead start. Even if they are just as talented as you the poor kid.

There are cultural contexts where children form groups and help each other and offer moral support. Such social interaction seems to be attached to high performance in just about every human endeavor where skill and knowledge are important. One study found that Asian kids were very good at forming such peer groups to study math, and that African American children were much more prone to studying alone. Asian cultures are noteworthy, in that academic achievement is prized even by the poorer segments of society, though I've also known African Americans who are from families with such a subculture which prizes knowledge and academic achievement.

Hold on, let me catch up here: your poor-neighborhood peers tell you you're "sexually inadequate" and therefore you go on to not be a mathematician? Can you connect those dots for me?

Hold on, let me catch up here: your poor-neighborhood peers tell you you're "sexually inadequate"

No. My peers told me I was sexually inadequate and less than essentially human. This was also mixed up with my having been molested be a peer in high school. As a result, I was pretty much unable to have a relationship until my late 20's, and even so it was hard to sustain a relationship long term for many years beyond that. (I'm happily married now, however.)

Insults and gaslighting with regards to one's sexuality are a particularly potent psychological weapon, and from what I've seen both as a direct participant and as an observer, some people from poorer backgrounds will actively punish those who are demonstrating academic excellence, or who are cultivating themselves in some other fashion. Such people are likely just a small percentage of the general populace. However, if one "sticks out" then that small percentage tends to find you more easily.

They are really easy to connect. Ex addicts that keep addict friends do not fare that well. Peer pressure can push you up but can also pull you down, calling you to engage in self destructive behaviours when you are already having an hard time climbing to a better life.


> Can you connect those dots for me?

Living in a bad environment definitely does influence your success. Are there exceptions? Yes, plenty of them. But that doesn’t mean that there is no impact for majority of people.

I was told even by cousins and close family that "reading so much would make me a fag" and that I should play more soccer. And certainly didn't help my academic career when the bullying I suffered stopped when I started behaving like a problem student.

In my case, this kind of discouragement actually helped me pursue a career in STEM, as it was the perfect excuse to leave my city, but I don't thinks this kind of environment is healthy and nurturing for someone's dreams.

>Even if you’re talented you probably know 0 people that can help you. Now your growth is prematurely stunted.

This was my experience, and was challenging. At the time I was more inclined to the arts, but the problem is the same. Who can you talk to about the books you're reading (my particular passion)?

This I guess is exactly what I was thinking. As a legacy from segregation (and ultimately, slavery), African Americans still are disproportionately poor. This explains the macro-statistic, that only 1% of Math PhD's are given to African Americans.

I don't doubt there is some personal bias that is at play too. As a PhD who isn't Black but isn't white or Asian, I face it too, but the personal challenges I face paled in comparison to the structural and purely economic challenges I had to overcome.

From this point of view it would be interesting to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of race-based affirmative action and income-based affirmative action.

> You’re probably locked in a school system with bad teachers and

It's worse than that. You're probably locked in a broken family with bad parent(s). When your parent(s) don't care about your education because they are uneducated themselves, are poor role models (addicts, etc.), THAT sets you up for the failure fast track.

No amount of money going to schools and teachers can fix that at scale unless you basically make the school a boarding school and replace the parents with mentors and role models at said boarding school.

Yes. A child's environment (social stability, economic, opportunity, attitudes towards education) is key for how well-prepared s/he is for college work (particularly for someone aiming for an academic position). Because of their limited opportunities before college, they have to work much harder in their major as well as in electives courses.

It's far from heart-breaking to hear the privileged grumble about such successes. In the system as it exists, only the extremely talented from poor, or racist, or rural environments stand a chance.

> Probably already completed proof based courses in analysis, algebra by the time they completed high school.

Is this common?

I don't doubt that there absolutely exists prejudices in this case but I also wonder how many will also be created by one self in that situation just because how the human mind works.

I used to have quite a lot of acne and it really got to my head. It of course did affect how people treated me, especially girls, because acne is not very attractive however after a while I probably read into things way more than I should. That people who were treating me the way they normally would or just happened to treat me badly because they had a bad day did treat me that way because of my acne.

Being the lone black guy in a research institution in a country like the US with that kind of history must be easy to start falling down that hole. Especially if there also exists people who are prejudiced or racist and expresses that as well.

So you believe your experience with acne could be a lot like people experiencing racism?

I feel like your comment is disingenuous. He's saying that we all feel slighted, and perhaps cases where minorities feel slighted, is just that.

A case mentioned from the article that gave me this vibe:

> “A couple of them were at a board writing something,” he recalled. “I went over and asked, ‘What are you guys working on?’”

> “We’re too far in to catch you up,” he said he was told.

I know personally, I used to feel very "in tune" to how people perceived me. I read a book on body language when I was younger, and would constantly analyze how people moved ("head tilted, they think this is interesting", "arms crossed, they're defensive"), etc. It went further than that - analyzing language etc.

But, there were some cases were I was certain someone was being an asshole to me - but I learned I was wrong. Now I'm much more restrictive in how I pass judgement on someone.

I hope others give me that benefit, because I constantly find myself thinking of how something I said in conversation could be misunderstood, etc. Communication is hard.

Yep, and thinking about that some more, I have to wonder if he might be suffering from early/mild signs of schizophrenia. The assumption of racism is unjustified paranoia.

When schizophrenia starts, it is common to assume that people's actions are in some way plotting against you. A person does something for a reason unrelated to you (example: bumps you accidentally), and you assume it was intentional.

I recall that there is even an increased chance of illness for math experts. Famously, it hit John Nash.

So his interpretation of other people's actions may be a sign that he is not well.

The comment you're replying to is attempting to empathize with the subject of this NYT profile, and to build up a mental framework for why their lived experience might resonate with experiences of their own. You have to want the comment to be dismissive to read it that way.

This thread is full of skeptical comments claiming certainty that not only is there good reason there aren't many black mathematicians, but also that this particular mathematician probably got his position through tokenism. Those comments are worth the kind of snark you mustered. This one wasn't.

I don't think acne is a very good facsimile of racism, and the comment you're replying to didn't say that it was either, so you're doubly out of line here, by hammering on an argument they didn't even make.

There are probably a lot of ways in which the commenter's experience doesn't come close to fully capturing what it's like for a person of color to fight one's way through the ranks of a profession that is overwhelmingly "white". It'd be useful to hear some of those ways! That would have been a productive response.

I believe we all view the world through our own filter with our own interpretations and I believe that just because that we perceive something does not make it objectively right.

It does not matter if it is a big thing like racism or something small like how you look. It is also pretty disingenuous to immediately go to accusing me of saying that my experiences is as bad as racism, I never claimed that. Racism as a concept is big and it is obviously something that affects people deeply but it does not have a monopoly when it comes to suffering either.

One young white middle class boy in my school was bullied so badly that one night he hung himself from a soccer goal. I did not know him or the people who bullied him but I suspect that the things he was bullied for was not worse than racism as a whole but I also suspect what he experienced is far worse than any hurt any racism this mathematician has experienced.

I cannot believe you got downvoted into grey text already despite how obviously terrible this person's comparison is. Not to mention the insinuation that the experience of racism may just be the spotlight effect. Literally the most general and ubiquitous claim you see made whenever topics around racial experience come up.

The thing with prejudice is nobody will ever admit to being prejudiced. All you can do is piece it together. Sometimes your working hypothesis is that it's just noise, other times it's prejudice.

I brought in a woman to work on a project once, and it was awful.

Despite her doing objectively better work than what was available before, my partners decided everything she did needed criticism. Never anything substantial, just pretend criticism meant to look like they knew what they were talking about. And one of them wanted veto on all the work, despite knowing very little about it.

They questioned whether she'd have been on the project if she didn't know me, which is pretty out there given she did this for a living for some very well known firms.

Then they called her something offensive in front of her, and when I called them out on it, they pretended it was a joke intended to make her feel like part of the team.

Can you ever conclude what people's true motivations are? Not really. Could someone genuinely have felt that some person's work was substandard, they didn't get the job legitimately, and could they screw up some office banter? Sure.

It took me a long time to think this through, but in the end it misogyny seemed to be the only answer. We'd worked with plenty of incompetents before without saying much, and hired plenty of people (all guys) through the friends network. We'd never had anyone get bullied like that in the office, though.

Story got a whole lot worse later, but that's for another time.

When I was in primary school in Canada, I was able to get mostly good grades without really trying. I admit I was a little lazy, and my laziness would result in the occasional bad grade.

What I remember is that I would always be scolded by my teachers for not doing well. A few of my friends, however, who were black would never be scolded for not doing well at school.

The point I'm trying to get across is that racism can be quite subtle and baked into things we don't even realize, like the expectations we have of other people. I'm not sure how well I would've done in life if people implicitly expected me to fail.

I think subtle racism is a big problem. It can be felt without being verbally communicated to you, the actions from the perpetrators are frustrating and you feel helpless. The perpetrators would not be corrected because they said nothing wrong. Worst of all is that you don’t get a fair shake, and you might be dismissed at the slightest hint of incoherence and sometimes you feel like the perpetrators are waiting for you to fail.

> For the record, here is a small sample of other communities where black people are strongly underrepresented:

> Runners (3%). Bikers (6%). Furries (2%). Wall Street senior management (2%). Occupy Wall Street protesters (unknown but low, one source says 1.6% but likely an underestimate). BDSM (unknown but low) Tea Party members (1%). American Buddhists (~2%). Bird watchers (4%). Environmentalists (various but universally low). Wikipedia contributors (unknown but low). Atheists (2%). Vegetarian activists (maybe 1-5%). Yoga enthusiasts (unknown but low). College baseball players (5%). Swimmers (2%). Fanfiction readers (2%). Unitarian Universalists (1%).

> Can you see what all of these groups have in common?

> No. No you can’t. If there’s some hidden factor uniting Wall Street senior management and furries, it is way beyond any of our pay grades.

> But what I noticed when I looked up those numbers was that in every case, the people involved have come up with a pat explanation that sounds perfectly plausible right up until you compare it to any other group, at which point it bursts into flame

Excerpt from Black People Less Likely: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/02/11/black-people-less-like...

I would bet that in almost every one of those categories, Americans of New England descent are over-represented compared to people of Christian Italian/German/Polish descent. (With the least money on the sporting ones.)

Furries (2%).Occupy Wall Street protesters (unknown but low, one source says 1.6% but likely an underestimate). BDSM (unknown but low). Environmentalists (various but universally low). Wikipedia contributors (unknown but low). Atheists (2%). Fanfiction readers (2%).

there are quite a few that don't really match...

Without specifics, I have to say my experince says your numbers are invented at best.

I fail to see how either of your anecdotes constitute racism

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19193568.

why? I don't mind being downvoted, and I enjoy reading the responses. Is it infringing on peoples' safe spaces?

Because if you toss off a low-information provocation in an inflammatory thread, that's trolling whether you meant to or not. (But indulging in an in-your-face phrase like "safe spaces" makes me think that maybe you did mean to.)

The result tends to be flamewar. Flamewars are equal parts dumb and predictable. Also, we're trying for this place not to turn into scorched earth.

really did not intend to troll in the first place - maybe a little in the second. I find the sensitivity level here a bit shocking. thanks for the response though - I'll take the feedback and add supporting info in the future.


This is an attempt to squash meaningful discussion. The right-wing bias of HN moderators is readily apparent, as usual.

In the first one, a person made the argument that the sole black person in the department was there only because he was black. That's what "token black person" means.

The second recapitulates a common racial stereotype about native Americans.

Hope that helped!

I need to say that I am a bit unsure how to relate to the two possible interpretation of "token black person". On one side there are people that assume black people at prestigious jobs are black token on the other side there are people that explicitly set out to hire some black tokens; in the middle you would have the society and culture that allows it.

The first side is an easy case of racism in most cases, the second side seem more nuanced. In the GP case apparently the person thought of himself as a black token, that is for sure a bad situation... but I cannot wrap my head around "how" it is a bad situation and its implications.

You shouldn't be unsure. You weren't there, and the person who is relating their interpretation of the comment was.

I am sure that the fact that someone believes he is a "black token" is a problem, I am also sure that this could (almost) only happen in a place were there is quite some racism.

What I pointed out is that not all racism is the same; all of it is bad and all of it should stop, we agree on that, but as most human endeavour it is complex with complex motivation. If you and I want to stop it we should better think about how every situation can be different and how different type of racism require different solutions.

In my case above assuming incompetence and hiring minorities just to have better statistics are very different form of racism led by often different people, often with different motivation. If OP clarifies more I will trust that, but the wording itself was quite ambiguous to me

(also I have the impression some comments have moved around...)

I have no idea where you're trying to take this. I'm saying that it's not productive to argue over the subtext of a hypothetical conversation neither of us are a party to. At some point your argument is going to have to boil down to "no, that person relating that story is not being fully truthful". Ok, that's a coherent argument, but not one I'm interested in having with you.

I need to say I am a bit confused, I maybe replied in the wrong place.

I meant to reply to a comment that only provided as an information that somebody believed to be a token black hire. To this my point was that multiple non trivial interpretation were possible.

Now I realize I commented directly on the article so that I was in practice casting doubt on the content. This was a mistake, to be clear I trust the Edray Goins version of his own story.

A bit late to reply, but I feel it is an important distinction.

> Yeah, the road system here was designed by a drunk Indian

What does including Indian add here? If the (alleged) drunk was white would the person have said, "drunk white guy"?

I'm assuming this is a genuine question on your part. I would suggest reading up on common stereotypes of the native peoples in the U.S. Native Americans did not design the road system in West Lafayette. Whites did. The person making the remark is in essence saying:

Yes the road system is really fucked up. It's so bad that I can't give a real explanation for it so I jokingly say a drunk Indian had to have done it because that's the only thing that can make sense.

For some reason I assumed that it was referring to subcontinent Indians, and was slightly confused because I don't consider it racist to point out that their road system is absolutely atrocious.

My first thought was that it was a non-sequitur, but that it involved subcontinent Indians. I find it ironic that people who are apparently calling out one kind of bigotry in this thread are then playing on stereotypes of what people who live in certain places are like.

As a nonwhite who actually has been racially bashed and who has seen people overcome bigotry through their basic humanity, I always want to warn everyone that the problem isn't people from a particular place, people of a particular ethnicity, or people grouped by any surface characteristic, chosen, indelible or in between. The problem is groupthink, and the dark emotions that can come about because of it.

The moment you start imputing thoughts, feelings, and emotions to people with scant evidence, you have taken a misstep. (1) You have succumbed to groupthink. If you would fight bigotry, it first behooves you to actively eliminate your own bigotry. It's then your duty not to fall into the very patterns you're supposed to fight.

(1) -- Also, if you start condemning people because you imagine you know what they are thinking and feeling, and you believe they are lying to you, then you set up a situation where no one can prove their innocence, and no one trusts anyone else anymore. We have historical accounts of such times and places. Often, such epistemological catastrophes accompany inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian violence and atrocities.

Native americans have high levels of alcoholism. The comment was referencing this as a contemptuous sterotype. A casual comment like that is a glimpse into widely held attitudes in the regional: the speaker felt comfortable saying it and assumed the listener wouldn't object.


A former governor of MN once claimed that its capital city streets were designed by drunken Irishmen. He immediately realized that was a Bad Thing to say, but it was certainly an afterthought to his statement.

The alleged drunk would never be white, that's the point. The punchline will always involve $DEROGATORY_MODIFIER $MINORITY. For instance, "drunk Indian"; if you grew up in IN, you'll tack on "but I repeat myself", because that's what passes for clever in IN. (I grew up there, I get to make fun.)


Western civilization is in crisis because of these social experimental policies undermining its original meritocratic competitive default mode. So, the real question is, where/when at some point does this madness stop?

We have a significant segment of the population that has been historically oppressed and suppressed. After desegregation whites fled the cities. Go look at the population of the top 50 cities in the U.S. in 1960 and compare with their populations in 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000. That white flight had a very bad effect on the school systems in those cities since school funding is largely a product of the tax base. So while from a legal standpoint there is equality (and this is generous given how bail, policing, etc. are done in the U.S.) there is indeed a state of inequality. Western civilization is not in a state of crisis because of attempts to remedy this state of affairs.

I submit the real question is when will people understand the social context in which a significant segment of the population exists and seek ways to remedy the problems. Be part of the solution.

> Have different standards for awarding doctorates based on race?

This is not at all what the article is saying. The article argues the low percentage is partially due to a "leaky pipeline" where black students don't have access to the same educational resources, and partially due to an unwelcoming atmosphere. The "So what?", if there is one given, is that we should address those issues, and the only example they give of how to do this is voluntarily setting up and participating in organizations for minorities. Implying the article as asking for lowered standards for black people is a mischaracterization.

I wouldn't even look at the article as an argument for any particular educational policy though. To me it seems like the article is light on the "So?", because its main aim is just to convey what's in the title: "What It's Like to Be a Black Mathematician". If the content of the article just boils down to "it's kinda shitty", it would still be worthwhile and convey valuable information we should care about, even if the implications are left to the reader.

I mean, doesn't the madness stop once the identity breakdown in a given field roughly matches the identity in the general population?

If X% of people are Black, I would expect given no structural impediments that roughly X% of Mathematicians would also be Black.

The how to get there in the quickest and fairest way is a political question.

As a statistician or economist, I would actually be quite shocked if the proportion was often close. This rarely or never happens in other fields, even ones where there is essentially no possibility of such supposed impediments. Randomness happens.

Instead of stealing someone's thunder by putting them on easy mode, give them the opportunity to kill it.

This is baseless, unscientific blank-slateism, and isn't true anywhere in the world among any demographic segment in any measure.

If 10% of Singaporean men are gay would you expect 10% of male plumbers in Singapore to be gay? If women are 30% of the workforce in Canada, would you expect Canadian dental assistants to be 70% male?

Disparate outcomes doesn't imply unfair treatment.

What specifically do you think is the reason black people should not be expected to achieve demographic parity in academic math? And how does that relate to “blank slate-ism”? You seem to be implying that there is some inherent characteristic of black people that prevents them from attaining equal representation in math academia. Is this what you intended to convey? Please be explicit.

> What specifically do you think is the reason black people should not be expected to achieve demographic parity in academic math?

I don't expect demographic parity in anything.

> And how does that relate to “blank slate-ism”?

You only expect demographic parity in everything if you think genetics doesn't play a role in what type of careers people choose.

> You seem to be implying that there is some inherent characteristic of black people that prevents them from attaining equal representation in math academia.

Well, for one, it looks like Black students choose Math as a major significantly less often than Asian students do. Blacks having some genetic predisposition to prefer other subjects seems like a pretty decent hypothesis.

Well, if you'd care to let us measure the bumps on your head, I'm pretty sure we could now come up with an equally moronic theory about related misshapen heads with a predisposition for making irrational, racist comments on the web.

No, that's true. They just suggest it.

No, again, this is blank-slateism. People are born with genetic predispositions that influence things such as height, eye color, mathematical ability, and career preference. You would only expect population-proportionate outcomes if genetics played no role. Even if they only play a 10% role, you get vastly different outcomes.

No, you're falsely projecting your own concerns about your interlocutors onto me. It doesn't follow from "sharply disparate outcomes suggest unfairness" that I must be a "blank-slate" purist. And, in fact, your response suggests you're the one with the extremist take: that disparate outcomes are most likely the result of fair processes running on unequal inputs. Approximately nobody on HN believes processes in general to be fair (see: any thread about which companies VCs choose to fund, or about the impact of lobbying on government decisions).

I conceded something about the point you made --- that disparate outcomes are not dispositive of structural unfairness --- and you responded to that concession by trying to caricature me. In this exchange, you have not come across as someone trying to discuss a complicated issue in good faith. Try again.

So your belief is that black people as a group have inherently less mathematical ability than whites people? Am I misinterpreting you?

A mathematics PhD is going to be in the far right tail of aptitude for a lot of relevant skills. This is the admittedly very rare case where altogether tiny differences in "inherent" ability will get amplified to the point where they actually start to matter - whatever "inherent" might mean, in the first place! Yup, crucially, even differences that are generally understood as "not inherent" can be so hard to address that they might as well be, for all we can do about them. If you ate too many lead paint flakes as a kid, the probability that you're going to be a successful math PhD drops quite a bit. And, short of tearing down and rebuilding a lot of homes that happen to have lead paint, lead pipes, etc. in them, we're unfortunately not going to be able to address this "inherent" unbalance for the foreseeable future.

You understand that the perception that you're looking at someone's skin color or facial features, making a prediction as to whether they ingested lead paint as a child, and then acting accordingly is going to be problematic, right?

But of course no one sane is doing anything of the sort. The issue is how to explain the difference between "% of people with visible feature X in the general population" and "% of folks with feature X who happen to be math PhD's". Well, if feature X correlates with issues like eating lead paint as a kid, even to a small, otherwise undetectable extent, you're going to find that sort of difference.


Personal attacks aren't ok here. We've banned this account. Please do not create accounts to break the site guidelines with, and please don't take HN threads further into flamewar hell.


"given no structural impediments" is the keyword - without any structural impediments, all your examples should be true.

Structural impediments aren't inherently unfair - for example, if gay men simply prefer not to be a plumber for some unknown reason, that is enough to say that there is a structural impediment for gay Singoporean plumbers, and there doesn't have to be anything unfair about that.

On the other hand, sometimes structural impediments are immoral and should be rectified. If a whole bunch of gay singoporean men wanted to be plumbers, but weren't allowed to enter the profession as a result of laws against their sexual orientation, that would be an unfair treatment and action should be taken to fix the unfair treatment.

With this in mind, we KNOW that minority populations have been very negatively affected for MANY generations from legal discrimination, which directly caused poverty. It is also widely accepted that family wealth is strongly correlated with success academically, and it is widely accepted that success academically is strongly correlated with socio-economic mobility.

Thus, the basis for affirmative action is that there is a moral burden to rectify structural impediments that are a legacy of legal racism, and that helping oppressed minorities get an education in spite of their circumstances helps propagate the socio-economic mobility that education enables.

You can disagree with many parts of this chain of logic. Perhaps higher education doesn't really help socio-economic mobility. Perhaps the moral burden should not be on universities to rectify past mistreatments. Perhaps you believe there is no moral burden to take action to rectify the legacy of last generations' (and all previous generations') racism & sexism. Maybe you even believe that the absurd underrepresentation of minorities and women in certain fields that were historically limited to white men is not at all tied to said historical oppression but simply due to preference or other factors considered acceptable.

However, examining underrepresentation is not baseless or unscientific, whether or not you agree with the conclusions.

An impediment by its very nature is unfair, even when it's something clearly genetic, because it impedes one group from doing the same as another group. However, to my knowledge there's no evidence of predispositions to fields of study based on (sex or race) genetics despite lots of effort to find scientific basis for such claims.

I can't imagine a good reason why young gay singoporeans wouldn't dream of being plumbers any more than the next kid.

Just to clarify, when I write "unfair" I mean specifically that it is something that public policy should potentially address as a public concern.

There are impediments that should not be addressed by public policy - for example , if young gay singoporeans are less likely to become plumbers because gay culture looks poorly upon plumbers, that's unfortunate but shouldn't be a matter of public policy.

>If X% of people are Black, I would expect given no structural impediments that roughly X% of Mathematicians would also be Black.

What makes you assume that? Do you feel the same about the NBA?


We've banned this account for using HN primarily for ideological battle.

If you don't want to be banned, you're welcome to email hn@ycombinator.com and give us reason to believe that you'll follow the rules in the future.


It's odd to compare two private industries (NBA and music) to education which is predominantly funded by the public.


The guidelines ask you to write more carefully as topics get divisive, but you're doing the opposite: talking about the "madness" of affirmative action is emotional language that does nothing but polarize the thread. Plenty of HN people respectfully and carefully disagree with affirmative action; if you can't be one of them, step aside and let them do it instead.

eruci 36 days ago [flagged]

Agreed! Should have used the word "irrational" instead.

You understand that there are many coherent rational arguments in favor of affirmative action, and that what you're really having is a disagreement over some pretty complicated premises that are unlikely to be disposed of in short, pithy comments, right? I try hard to listen to conservatives despite being a liberal and have learned to dial my hackles down in conversations about race-based affirmative action because, while I disagree with conservatives on that point, I'm not going to get anywhere by claiming that the fairness and practicality of affirmative action is a received truth. You're going to have to do the same thing with your opposition to affirmative action.


I sense BS. As is the case here, a mediocre mathematician using the race card to score some political points.

Wow, you sure took that to a great place. Can't imagine why you'd have a hard time having this kind of conversation with people.

I mean, real professionals focus on their work, not the color of their skin.

All you know about this professional is that he was willing to talk to the NYT about how hard it is to be a black mathematician. That made you uncomfortable, and so you've constructed a whole mathematics code of conduct to forbid it that exists only in your head, which you further projected from to slander them about their competence.

>I do not think any race is inferior/superior to any other and as such people of all races should be treated equally in all fields of professional achievement

>Conservatives and Liberals should openly talk about these issues for the common good

What's difficult to process here is that you lay out a cogent argument--or at least a coherent rationale--for why you oppose affirmative action. Essentially, you believe no race is superior to others. That's great.

But, of course, people can plainly see that you are excluding the actual reason that affirmative action exists--having nothing to do with the inherent features of any race, and everything to do with historical racial inequities. And, it is very difficult to believe that you are unaware of these inequities (or their bases for affirmative action, for that matter).

Now, you can make the argument that you don't believe affirmative action is the appropriate remedy for past racial injustices. But, that's not the argument you're making. Instead, you ignore this salient factor and instead posit some saccharine, red-herring rationale for eliminating it. And, this must be purposeful. I mean, surely you don't earnestly believe that affirmative action is intended to mitigate inherent racial inferiorities (or do you?).

So, given this, it appears that you are not earnestly interested in "talking about these issues for the common good", to say the least.

"surely you don't earnestly believe that affirmative action is intended to mitigate inherent racial inferiorities (or do you?)."

Of course, I don't. That's not what I've been saying at all! No matter what it appears to your point of view.

The common good is optimized when the best people, regardless of their skin color, occupy the positions they deserve in all fields of professional activity.

The common good is also optimized by openly and fairly having these discussions, in a way that pushes people to see each other's point of view, hence pushing all sides towards the middle.

It is a way to prevent the election of extremists in high positions of power who then polarize us even further apart.

>Of course, I don't. That's not what I've been saying at all!

Right. So, the point is that if you know the purpose of affirmative action is not to mitigate racial inferiorities, yet you make the argument that affirmative action isn't needed because there aren't racial inferiorities, then your argument is obviously disingenuous.

That is, there's something else motivating your distate for affirmative action; something you'd clearly prefer to conceal. But, the rest of your comment offers a clue.

In any case, if you find people unwilling to engage in a discussion with you "for the common good", it's because they see through your transparent attempts at misdirection.

The only point of view you're willing to entertain is your own, the one that says that "skin color" has no bearing on how people are treated professionally. When a credentialed professional tells the NYT that that hasn't been their experience, you take offense, and from your offense construct a claim that they must not be professional or even competent.

Btw, to ascertain the competence for a given individual in a given field it is easy to check. Go to Google Scholar and look at the number of citations.

For Edray Goins it is a relatively low number, that's why I used the word "mediocre."

> what do we do?

Good question. It's a very hard problem, and requires a lot of thought and self-reflection to even begin to solve. Simple university admission policies will not solve such a broad social issue, as you've noted.

> original meritocratic competitive default mode

Can you explain this? When/where did this meritocratic system exist?


> how the British civil service worked

Literally an old boys network where people had to go to the right schools. The civil service is currently working hard to correct years of racist (and sexist, and ableist) hiring practices.


"The study, commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, found that ethnic minority staff got lower marks in performance reviews, do not always have equal access to promotion, and don’t feel they work for an organisation that is “open, fair and inclusive”. Even black and Asian officials who make it to the senior ranks felt it was largely because “their face did fit” the mould in other ways – like attending Oxbridge or having middle-class parents."

Just want to add that historical British society has a pretty amazing, filigreed culture of bigotry that has clearly been perfected through centuries of refinement. I didn't know this until I had a product management job where I had to work directly with a decent-sized direct sales team, and we had an upper-class and a lower-class person on that account team. The British take things beyond skin color, or even the old 1900s notion of whether the Italians are "truly" white --- they've got their hierarchy of parentage calibrated down to the county.

The historical British civil service is your prime example of a superior meritocracy?

>Meritocracy was the default for institutions so long as someone could enter the competition. The aberrations were for nepotism/ cronyism but those appear to be relatively limited.

Limited? Weren't universities merely the place were nobility and rich heirs went to study to get back and lead their inherited empires?

There's something to be said for representation. If you're a bright high-schooler with some interest in mathematics, but don't have a single mathematician to point to who shares your cultural background, it's much harder to visualize and manifest your goal. There's at least a partial self-sustaining mechanism to this sort of thing, which I think is the best argument for affirmative action.

But "shares your cultural background" is in large measure something we choose. Not necessarily as individuals, but as a society, in what we emphasise.

Why can't "American" be the right cultural background, or better yet for math nerd kids, "mathematicians who are also musicians" (common), or "mathematicians who like drawing pictures" / "hate drawing pictures" (most depts have both)?

Instead we choose always to emphasise fault lines, and they are proliferating. How many years until it's important to hire enough openly gay (or muslim, or trans, or atheist!) mathematicians, for exactly the same reasoning? The kids likely to become mathematicians may be the people on the planet least interested in these divisions, but they are really really interested in symbols on paper.

> Why can't "American" be the right cultural background, or better yet for math nerd kids, "mathematicians who are also musicians" (common), or "mathematicians who like drawing pictures" / "hate drawing pictures" (most depts have both)?

Because America consists of multiple strongly-cohesive subcultures that aren't as simple as "American", but go much deeper than hobbies. Of course there are no hard lines, but if we're being reasonable, we can see this to be generally true. It's human nature to compare yourself to those who are strongly similar to you, especially when those similarities take the form of life challenges having been faced.

> Instead we choose always to emphasise fault lines, and they are proliferating. How many years until it's important to hire enough openly gay (or muslim, or trans, or atheist!) mathematicians, for exactly the same reasoning?

Presumably this kind of "emphasis" will settle once things have balanced out - i.e., once diversity in a given field roughly matches diversity in the general population. In the meantime we skew our meritocracy a bit, but it should be a temporary situation.

These aren't hobbies. Number theorists and topologists have minds that work in profoundly different ways. Talented 12-year-olds will like some kinds of problems much more than others. I think a great outreach goal would be to get them rooting for one team or the other -- to give them an identity within mathematics, in other words.

I'm not suggesting we can eliminate all other subcultures at the stoke of a pen. But do think they can grow or die in strength as a result of our actions.

I have more sympathy for the seeing-someone-like-yourself argument when talking about aspiring pop stars (or politicians) who need to imagine themselves being on TV. But I'm dubious for mathematicians, most of whom apply to grad school because they still like solving problems, not because they imagine themselves in a job.

> But do think they can grow or die in strength as a result of our actions.

Are you suggesting it's desirable for them to die off? America is built on its diversity of subcultures. Just because there's some tension between them right now doesn't mean they're bad. These are growing pains.

> I have more sympathy for the seeing-someone-like-yourself argument when talking about aspiring pop stars (or politicians) who need to imagine themselves being on TV. But I'm dubious for mathematicians, most of whom apply to grad school because they still like solving problems, not because they imagine themselves in a job.

Based on what I've heard from friends in academia, it has more in common with being an aspiring pop star than many would like to think

Die down, not die off. The melting pot is a great idea, but Balkanization is a terrible one. I worry that the drift is toward the latter.

And, I'd support policies to actively discourage aspiring pop stars, of all flavors! But I do mean particularly mathematics here, who are several sigma off the middle of academia.

I've travelled a bit and I think most people have the same potential to be good at different fields across races. The main difference is how much value is placed on a skillset in a society.

There's more of an emphasis in Math (and Science?) in Asia. When I was in India, I was a part of a group scavenger hunt and all the girls decided they would work together to solve calculus problems. That blew my mind. In USA, people are able to brush aside math by saying it's hard or math isn't for girls, etc.

I think “meritocratic competitive default mode” is not looking deep enough. Putting aside any instances of, for example, rich idiots getting admitted to universities just because they’re rich, there is still a massive problem with admitting people to universities based “on merit”. People growing up in lower socioeconomic backgrounds are going to have had a lower quality of education prior to applying for entrance to university, and most processes I’ve read about don’t really take this into account. As a result, comparing everyone equally across the same (for example) entrance exam means that you end up selecting for people from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

I don’t know a good solution to this, but I think it’s something that needs to not be forgotten when discussing “meritocracies”.

"So, the real question is, where/when at some point does this madness stop?"

Maybe when all race and gender fall under a single label such as human, in all forms of life. But then, that's meritocracy as we know it.

Factually speaking there are, for example, women secured positions in Universities. So "...Have different standards for awarding doctorates based on race"? Maybe not for Ph.d, but for tenure the answer is factual yes.

After we've corrected the historical discrimination? i.e. not yet.

> Have different standards for awarding doctorates based on race?

Things need to be fixed systematically, including education from the pre-school level on. Every kid is a potential scientist, it's the ones we nurture that make it there.

> Have different standards for awarding doctorates based on race?

The point of the article, if you think about it, is this is exactly what is happening currently and needs to be stopped / reversed.

What crisis are you referring to? Why do you call it a crisis, rather than simply an ongoing problem?


You have no basis for saying this—as your own language admits ("It actually sounds like"... "His colleagues very likely"). That makes your comment a slur as well as a personal attack. When new accounts post those, we ban them as trolls.

Doubly when the purpose of the comment is generic ideological battle. That is unwelcome here, as it is predictable, tedious, and interesting only to zealots.

> This is the unintended consequence of hiring and promoting based on identity instead of merit.

I would argue that the more apt description is: This is the unintended consequence of hiring and promoting based on aptitude instead of current qualification.

In other words, when you see a 'less-qualified' individual who 'made it due to affirmative action', it may be constructive to remember that they are probably just as 'talented' as their peers, albeit not as 'qualified.

They haven't had the time/resources to capitalize on their god-given talent due to various socio-economic pressures.

In a way, affirmative action is rewarding merit -- it's just a different definition of merit that looks at how much you've excelled in your field in the context of the difficulties you faced along the way.

> In a way, affirmative action is rewarding merit -- it's just a different definition of merit that looks at how much you've excelled in your field in the context of the difficulties you faced along the way.

This a good way to put it, but under this light an income-based affirmative action would maybe make more sense. Even better if based on both the income of you family and the Gini coefficient of you district/city/area.

(I am not an expert on affirmative action, I never heard of this but I don't know if it is already in place)

I don't see how affirmative action makes sense. I can understand spending more resources to catch people up from poor backgrounds, so that they can pass the bar, but I don't see why you would want to lower the bar.

One reason is that, as as society, we've agreed that we value (and want to reward) hard work over god-given talent.

So, if there is a prestigious position available, we would rather award it to someone who is slightly less capable but had to work much harder to get where he/she is.

This value structure arguably hurts productivity, but it's not inferior in an absolute sense. It all depends on what we value.

I disagree with you motivation, affirmative action purpose is to give a second chance to people who had a bad hand at life: you had a terrible high school? maybe you can still become a fantastic Ph.D. if you got the chance at a better university.

It is not about hard work but how exam and unidimensional numbers are a poor way to grade humans when you consider a variety of backgrounds.

Commenter looks at a field that hires only white men, and excludes everyone else, and sees a meritocracy. If an single extremely competent, outstandingly-qualified black man is hired, it's because of his identity.


In my country many university apply for European grants, one easy way to get more points is to include minorities in you research group, if by some chance you get a female immigrant african disabled student you are going to want to include her in every project you ever have.

The above commenter saw a place where from above there were incentives to hire minorities, it is not impossible to believe that at some point an administrator claimed "we need a diversity hire in the next 6 month" and they hired the only matching one.

Also the bigotry of low expectation is a real thing, where some people treat minorities as essentially stupid by default and then get magically surprised when they are normally competent.

I don't know if I agree with the commenter above, but the incentives of affirmative action and diversity hire are sometimes problematic.

(just for clarity, my personal opinion is to assume that everyone that got a job deserved it. Even if it is obviously false sometimes it is the most stable one, we should keep our culture in a place where that is a reasonable assumption)

For GP, and for those in other comments who were confused about the phrase "token," this is it in a nutshell - having people doubt your accomplishments, and assume that the reason you're in a position is not because you're qualified, but because you have a specific identity.

there is another side; the one were companies actually hire people for numbers (I am not claiming they are common). for example in china there is a market of "white guy in suit walking around the office looking busy when visitors are present". I don't want to diminish your point as it is indeed a serious problem, but it is not the whole picture.

As an Asian in math I suffer from racism as well.

See I was voted down. Racism.

Please don't break the site guidelines by going on about downvoting.


The problem with your earlier comment is that it was unsubstantive. Grand claims in unsubstantive comments on inflammatory topics are particularly problematic.

At this time, only 4 hours old and 93 points, but is buried as #257 on the 9th page. What gives?

From the FAQ:

> "How are stories ranked?"

> "The basic algorithm divides points by a power of the time since a story was submitted. Comments in threads are ranked the same way."

> "Other factors affecting rank include user flags, anti-abuse software, software which demotes overheated discussions, and moderator intervention."

From what I've seen, having so many more comments than points is one of the triggers for the "overheated discussions". Probably not the only factor, but probably a significant one.


Your handling of this comment section was irresponsible. If you cannot handle this responsibility you should ban submissions and comments dealing with any and all social issues and allow only technical discussion. You have allowed a hateful element to silence a voice that spoke truth to power by making simple observations about how mathematicians handle race over a course of decades. The moderation of this submission was unreasonable and discompassionate.

Edit: To my brigader bot, I am responding directly to a moderator. I want him to read this comment. Flagging it immediately after I post is actually helpful. Downvoting it only helps to prove my point.

To be honest I'm having a hard time orienting to your complaint here. The only thing I remember about the thread is banning someone who commented from (I think?) the opposite side to yours, so if anything I'd expect the bias accusation to run the other way.

If you think we made a mistake in the thread, it'd be more helpful to post (or email us) a link and point out the specific mistake. Rote denunciations don't help us correct anything, and general accusations like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19195885 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19194629 don't add information, because you're simply not working with an accurate picture of what we do. I understand how that happens, but there isn't much in it I can learn from.

My complaint from the beginning was that you stifled conversation by detaching this thread and because every comment is flagged and downvoted automatically you have allowed those who are afraid of this type of discussion to sabotage any submission they dislike. You caved to the brigade instead of acting as a responsible moderator. The ranking algorithm and the moderation policies are too crude for this type of submission. It would be more responsible to disallow them entirely.

What you say about the comments is clearly not the case, as anyone can see by looking at the thread.

I'm not sure what you mean by detaching the thread.

But aren't we all a minority in some way?

Looking at the folks in my office, many of us are not native speakers of English. The guy sitting next to me is a native speaker, but he's black. The guy next to him is a white native speaker, but he's disabled and has to work from home most of the time. Another guy "ticks all the marks", but he's extremely shy. And so on and so forth.

Look at yourself, at your parents carefully and you'll realize you are a minority in one way or another.

I always struggle to see people victim of racism identify themselve only through their race.

. “I have been the only one in most of the universities I’ve been to — the only student or faculty in the mathematics department.”

“To say that I feel isolated,”

I have always been different looking than other people around me and never identified myself through my race but through my interests and undertakings in life. I find it sad that even people with PhDs think all people of the same race are the same and feel isolated when they re not around same race people while for me being a mathematician surrounded by mathematicians should be the only thing that matters.

But this is not necessarily a matter of choice. If everyone else thinks race is a thing, you need to at least think about it, regardless of whether you believe in it too. I'd like to think the way you do ("my interests and undertakings in life"), and mostly I do, but if I find myself in a society where everyone has a label, I need to consider my label. To the point where it might make sense for me to have others with that label near me.

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