Learning Mathematics While Black

By Martin, Danny Bernard | Educational Foundations, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Learning Mathematics While Black


Martin, Danny Bernard, Educational Foundations


A study that concludes that African-American students perform way below White mainstream students ... is correct, but such a conclusion tells us very little about the material conditions with which African-American students work in the struggle against racism, educational tracking, and the systematic negation and devaluation of their histories. I would propose that the correct conclusion rests in a full understanding of the ideological elements that generate and sustain the cruel reality of racism and economic oppression. Thus an empirical study will produce conclusions without truth if it is disarticulated from the socio-cultural reality within which the subjects of the study are situated. (Macedo, 1998, p. xxii)

In a recently edited book, titled Mathematics Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children (Martin, 2009b), I charged the authors with the task of continuing to help change the direction of research on Black children and mathematics. I suggested that such a change was necessary because the knowledge base of rigorous, explanatory research, stretching a minimum of 30 years, has remained quite thin and that Black children and their competencies, more often than not, continue to be framed in negative and detrimental ways. (2) I noted that underachievement and failure in mathematics have been emphasized over success and resilience. I also noted that the aims and goals of mathematics education for Black children have often been conceptualized in overly simplistic ways that emphasize their commodification as future participants in higher-level mathematics courses or in the nation-preserving technological workforce (National Research Council, 1989; RAND Mathematics Study Panel, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Liberatory and emancipatory themes have seldom been put forth in response to the question why should Black children learn mathematics? (e.g., Anderson, 1970; Martin & McGee, 2009; Woodson, 1933).

In my own chapter, titled "Liberating the Production of Knowledge About African American Children and Mathematics" (Martin, 2009c), I described how the dominant framings and storylines about Black children and mathematics have grown out of a race-comparative approach (McLoyd, 1991). As a result, and until very recently, much of the knowledge base on Black children and mathematics has consisted of summary reports documenting their performance on achievement tests in relation to other children (Johnson, 1984; Lubienski, 2002; Secada, 1992; Strutchens & Silver, 2000; Tate, 1997),3 particularly White children, whose mathematical behaviors and outcomes are typically normalized as the standard for all children (Martin, 2007b, 2009a, 2009d, 2009e). The discursive practice of referring to Black-White racial gaps in mathematics achievement and notions of closing such gaps by raising Black achievement to the level of White achievement contribute to this normalization (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Perry, 2003).

Although the race-comparative approach has been helpful in documenting and pinpointing disparities, it has also had the deleterious effect of helping to position Black children at the bottom of a racial hierarchy of mathematics ability (Martin, 2009a, 2009c, 2009d). This positioning often becomes the default, taken-as-shared assumption and starting point not only in many mainstream mathematics education research and policy discussions but also in everyday discourse among the general public. Elsewhere (Martin, 2007b, 2009a), I have also shown that this taken-as-shared assumption about Black learners draws on, and contributes to, racial ideologies informing larger social societal discourses about what it means to be Black. Moreover, construed far beyond their intended purposes, the results of race-comparative analyses have been used by some scholars to question if, not how, Black children can learn mathematics (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; S. Thernstrom & A. Thernstrom, 1997; A.

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