In UK, October is Black History Month: Here’s Why Some Are Also Adding ‘Black Mathematicians Month’ to Calendars

Promoting the visibility of black mathematicians is key to encouraging the next generation of mathematicians. (Photograph: Chalkdust)
Promoting the visibility of black mathematicians is key to encouraging the next generation of mathematicians. (Photograph: Chalkdust)

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

by Sean Jamshidi, Nikoleta Kalaydzhieva, and Rafael Prieto Curiel

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 Waitheat 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 literatureand 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.

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”.

Perhaps one reason why we don’t see many black mathematicians is due to the global economic disparity. When half the population of Africa lives on less than one dollar per day, pursuing a career in mathematical research might seem particularly unachievable. Indeed, enrolment in higher education in Africa is significantly lower than anywhere else in the world. Lassina Dembélé, a professor at Warwick University, found that growing up in the Ivory Coast he “didn’t hear much about mathematical research, [and] wasn’t really aware of the possibilities.” But income inequality also exists within the UK.Black people in Britain are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed than white people, and in London more than half of those who live in low-income households are from ethnic minorities. There are known academic advantages associated with coming from a wealthy background, and since black and ethnic minority children are less likely to come from a well-off family, it is not surprising that there are fewer black academics.

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SOURCE: The Guardian

Sean, Niki and Rafael are contributors to maths magazine Chalkdust and PhD candidates at University College London