‘Hidden Figures’ Is the Permission We Need to Groom More Black and Hispanic Math Whizzes

One afternoon last summer at BEAM 6, an experimental program in downtown Manhattan for youths with a high aptitude for math, a swarm of 11- and 12-year-olds jockeyed for a better view of a poster labeled “Week One Challenge Problem.”

Is there a 10-digit number where the first digit is equal to how many 0’s are in the number, the second digit is equal to how many 1’s are in the number, the third digit is equal to how many 2’s are in the number, all the way up to the last digit, which is equal to how many 9’s are in the number?

Within the scrum was a trio of friends-in-formation: “Can we work on this during Open Math Time?” one asked. The second, wearing red-and-black glasses and dogged by the fear that he did not belong — “I’m really not that good at math,” he had told me earlier — lingered at the snack cart. “Leave some for the rest of us, J. J.,’’ demanded the third, gently elbowing him aside.

To Mira Bernstein, a BEAM instructor and a leading figure in the extracurricular math ecosystem that incubates many of the nation’s scientists and engineers, the scene was unremarkable, except for one striking feature: None of the children were wealthy, and few were white or Asian.

The 76 students, drawn from New York City public schools with low-income populations, were embarking on a curriculum that they would have to continue on their own during the school year to be eligible to apply for a second, even more intense math summer program, BEAM 7. That application is due at the end of this month, and with it comes a verdict of sorts on their membership in a math-geek subculture where it can be astonishingly difficult to find others who look like them.

“This is probably more math-y black and Hispanic kids than I’ve seen in my whole career,” said Dr. Bernstein, who received a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry from Harvard in the 1990s. “That’s why I’m here.”

The extreme racial homogeneity in the rarefied realm of young math wizards has drawn little attention in a nation where racial equality in the basic institutions of civic life — schools, housing, health care, policing — remains elusive. But it has become an increasing source of consternation for some mathematicians, educators and business leaders, who see it directly linked to the striking underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in high-paying, high-status jobs in finance, science and technology. As those occupations increasingly propel our society, they fear that enrichment programs for mathematically gifted children, while rooted in meritocratic ideals, have become a particularly potent means of reinforcing privilege.

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Source: The New York Times | AMY HARMON