In the age of big data, machine learning, smart bombs, and facial recognition, that mathematical science plays an immeasurable—and political—role in shaping our world is uncontestable. Academically speaking, mathematics is somewhat artificially divided into two camps: applied and pure. It would be reasonable to believe that it is the applied mathematicians who are responsible for all of the ways in which mathematics impacts our everyday experiences. Indeed, there are many pure mathematicians who take this point of view—that pure mathematics concerns itself only with ideas and abstractions; with completely theoretical universes in which the laws of algebra are mutable; with shapes, geometries, and space-times that occur only naturally in many dimensions. Thus, there is no need, and in fact no room, for humanity in pure mathematics.
We are a collective of mathematicians who could not disagree more strongly. Over the summer of 2020, largely in response to the Black Lives Matter rebellion that arose across the country, we formed the Just Mathematics Collective (JMC) to organize towards a culture of mathematics—both pure and applied—that embodies abolitionist principles. Inspired by the teachings of radical Black feminist organizers such as Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Miss Major Griffin Gracy, and so many others, we envision a world free of prisons and policing. We also believe that effective organizing starts “at home”—with the people close to you and with whom you share common interests. In that spirit, we came together to ask:
What would a mathematics community that embraces abolitionist principles look like?
As mathematicians (and many of us—though not all of us—as pure mathematicians), what sort of organizing work can we do to shift the community towards that lofty ambition?
We began by teaming up with ten colleagues who, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Summer uprisings, wrote an open letter calling on the mathematics community to sever its professional ties with policing. There are many connections between mathematics and the policing world, and many of the people who help to develop the surveillance technology that police officers and intelligence agencies use are mathematically trained scientists.
The open letter paid special attention to the practice of so-called predictive policing, in which algorithms are trained on past crime data to make predictions about when and where future crime is likely to happen. Since police disproportionately target Black and Brown working class neighborhoods, the crime data reflects these biases, and, therefore, the algorithms make predictions that align with the white supremacist and classist aims of policing as an institution. Studies have shown that predictive policing has not led to any significant changes in resource allocation or the ways and places in which police spend their time. Instead, it provides the false appearance of scientific objectivity to justify existing racist practices.
Several members of the JMC were co-authors, and the rest of the collective helped to edit and circulate the letter, onto which almost two thousand community members eventually signed (see the linked news coverage below). We are now planning to further this campaign and have a number of other projects underway. A crucial aspect of our approach is to move beyond the standard liberal interventions—revolving around “diversity and inclusion”—that dominate social justice and equity efforts in the mathematics community. While we affirm the importance of representation, we do not aspire to a future in which a handful of Black and Brown mathematicians have real decision making power, but in which our community still actively invests in the oppression of all people. Examples of these oppressive behaviors include (but are by no means limited to):
- Collaborating with institutions of policing;
- Training our students to work for investment firms, hedge funds, and weapons manufacturers, but not spending even a day during a standard undergraduate math major curriculum discussing ethical ramifications;
- Buying into the divide-and-conquer lie of STEM supremacy—fed to us by austerity-minded politicians and penny-pinching administrators—whereby the departments of our humanities colleagues are being bled dry, and public education is greatly weakened;
- Working with for-profit publishers who prevent, at all costs, a true democratization of knowledge;
- Investing in a toxically hierarchical academic power structure—one that breeds exploitation and sexual violence—where the future of one’s career can be made or broken by a single person’s letter of recommendation.
We instead envision a mathematics community in which, in addition to having genuine representation for Black and Brown people:
- Professional mathematicians collaborate with organizers to protect people against police and state violence and to build technologies in support of people-led fights for racial, climate, economic, and gender justice;
- Students of mathematics are taught histories of their discipline from a political and ethical perspective;
- We build solidarity across academic disciplines to strengthen collective bargaining and protect against the ongoing privatization of education;
- There is widespread community use of open access journals, so that access to published research is not limited by access to institutional resources;
- Young, non-men, non-white, and/or not able bodied researchers are supported and seen in their work, on their terms.
There is much to do, but optimism and hope are at the core of radical organizing; we believe that we are capable of building healthy communities and are excited, and privileged, to be dedicating our time and effort towards this in the mathematics world.
For more information on the JMC open letter on predictive policing, please see the news coverage in Popular Mechanics, The Intercept, Nature, Salon, and Inside Higher Ed, or contact Tarik Aougab, Haverford College, and Jayadev Athreya, University of Washington.
Image: Syrian Arab mathematician and astronomer Al-Battani (ca. 858–929 CE), Wikimedia Commons.