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Why we’re adding Black Mathematician Month to our calendars

Oct 2, 2017 by

Promoting the visibility of black mathematicians by is key to encouraging the next generation of mathematicians.

It’s time to start promoting black mathematicians and talking about building a more representative mathematical community

This October marks the 30th Black History Month in the UK. The annual event, first celebrated in the US in 1976, aims to highlight the ongoing struggle for equality and to educate people on the achievements of members of the African diaspora.

Of course there is plenty to celebrate, from both a historical perspective and in modern society. It is easy to reel off a list of black stars from football, athletics, basketball or cricket. The evolution of popular music has been driven by black artists, from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin to Kanye West and Beyoncé. The success of Lena Waithe at the Emmys and Moonlight at the Oscars shows the abundance of black excellence on screen, and the beginnings of recognition at the most prestigious award ceremonies. There are also increasing examples of mainstream success in areas such as literature and politics where, with a record number of black and minority ethnic MPs elected in the 2017 General Election, the UK parliament is more diverse than ever – although there is still a long way to go.

Despite the persistence of racial prejudice in society, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find examples of black icons in arts, sport, culture or politics. But what about science? Where can we turn if we want to celebrate the achievements of black chemists, biologists or mathematicians? Not to the Nobel prizes: outside of Peace and Literature, only one prize has ever been awarded to a black person, (W Arthur Lewis, for his research on the economics of developing countries) and the Fields Medal, often called the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize, has never been won by a black mathematician.

Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who calculated the trajectories that launched the first Americans into space, at Langley Research Center in 1980. Her story features in Hidden Figures, a book and film about contributions made by African-American women during the early days of U.S. aeronautics. Photo by NASA

Beyond awards like these, which are symbolic without being an ultimate goal for fair representation, research has revealed some alarming issues in British universities. Black people are severely underrepresented in the highest academic positions, the number of black students drops from 7% to 3.5% as you go from undergraduate to postgraduate level, and there are more young black men in prison in the UK than at Russell Group universities. On the more practical side of things, black men are 28% less likely to work in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs than white men. The range of these statistics suggests that inequalities are present at every level of higher education. As Nazar Miheisi, a teaching fellow at Kings College London, puts it: “There is a filter at each stage of [academic] progression.” To get to the top level, Miheisi believes that he was “lucky to be actively encouraged. But you shouldn’t have to be lucky”.

Source: Why we’re adding Black Mathematician Month to our calendars | Science | The Guardian

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