LITTLE BLACK BOYS AND LITTLE BLACK GIRLS:
HOW DO MATHEMATICS EDUCATION RESEARCH AND
POLICY EMBRACE THEM?
Danny Bernard Martin
University of Illinois at Chicago
Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song.
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,
And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one.
At an old Baptist church there was no need to run.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
The clouds they were grey and the autumn winds blew,
And Denise McNair brought the number to two.
The falcon of death was a creature they knew,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
The church it was crowded, but no one could see
That Cynthia Wesley's dark number was three.
Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
Young Carol Robertson entered the door
And the number her killers had given was four.
She asked for a blessing but asked for no more,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom...1
The theme of this year’s conference is Embracing Diverse
Perspectives. This theme clearly represents an invitation for scholars in
the field to consider and appreciate a wide range of theoretical and
methodological perspectives on mathematics learning and participation,
including those perspectives that diverge from what might be called
conventional or mainstream thinking.
In my view, the conference theme also provides an opportunity to
raise questions about how mathematics education research and policy
have embraced and served the diversity of students who show up in
mathematics classrooms, especially those students who must learn
mathematics while simultaneously trying to negotiate the most difficult
and oppressive life circumstances. These are often the same students
who have been systematically and deliberately underserved in so many
other societal and institutional contexts.
In this address, I take advantage of the conference theme to do two
things that rarely occur in mainstream mathematics education contexts.
First, I put Black children and their experiences at the center of the
discussion. I share my perspective on how I believe mathematics
education has and has not served these students. In many ways, Black
children serve as canaries in the coal mine. If we have not, and cannot,
do right by these children, it is extremely difficult for me to believe that
we can accomplish the goals inherent in the conference theme.
My focus on Black children is not an exclusionary move; taking a
pro-Black-child stance should not be interpreted as a stance against any
other group of children given my sincere interest in insuring that all
children experience mathematics learning and teaching in relevant and
meaningful ways. However, I do believe that, in the context of
discussing diversity, we should never lose sight of particularity. So,
while it is important to discuss the needs of Black children as children, it
is equally important to prioritize their needs as Black children.
Similarly, when discussing particularity, we should never lose sight
of diversity. Regarding this last point, we should not lose sight of the
fact that there is great diversity among Black children in the United
States. There is no singular, essential characterization. They come from
varied socioeconomic and family backgrounds and respond to schooling
and education in multiple ways. Yet, there is a collective history and
collective condition of Blacks in the United States that is clearly
distinguished from other social groups. It is this history and collective
condidtion that gives partial meaning to what it has meant, and what it
currently means, to be Black in America.
My focus on Black children in the United States does not deny that
they are forever linked to other Blacks in the African diaspora,
including Afro-Latins in the central and southern Americas, Afro-
Carribeans in the West Indies, the Sidis in India, the Aboriginals in
Australia, Afro-Arabs in the Middle East, and so on. These diasporic
relations remind us that Black children in the United States are also
children of the world.
It is unfortunate that some policy makers and education researchers
often lose sight of this fact by confining black children’s existence to
poverty-ridden communities, broken families, and low-quality schools
and easily dismissing the historical and structural forces that create and
maintain those conditions.
Moreover, there is a disturbing trend in society, the media, and public
policy that attempts to strip Black children of their childlike qualities
altogether by using such labels as thugs, urban terrorists, predators,
threats to society, and endangered species. Ignoring structural
considerations, we are asked to believe that genetic, cultural, and
intellectual inferiority account for these conditions.
While it is true that disproportionate numbers of Black children in the
U.S. and around the world continue to experience life conditions that not
only limit their opportunities to learn but that also threaten their very
lives, this is not the end of the story. It is equally true that, wherever they
live and learn and no matter what their circumstances, Black children are
also among the most resilient. We need more studies of this resilience in
Black children in the U.S. are also growing up in a time when
geopolitical boundaries are being blurred by technology and
globalization. Social media such as YouTube and MySpace are not only
responsible for exporting and importing culture, ideology, protest, and
revolution but also for exposing the human condition and helping Black
children to contextualize their lives vis-à-vis the conditions in which
other children live and learn. Black children can see that the struggle for
a more humane existence is not confined to the boundaries of their own
neighborhoods or cities.
Within this global perspective, the implication for Black children’s
mathematical education is clear:
… meaningful mathematics education for African-American
children should not only help them function in their local contexts
in U.S. society but should also help them function as citizens of the
globe, to function across boundaries of difference, and to recognize
similarities in human conditions among people who wage the
struggle against oppression” (Martin & McGee, 2009, p. 216).
This view on the aims and goals of mathematics education stands in
sharp contrast to policy discussions that frame mathematics participation
for Black children in terms of workforce participation and the
preservation of U.S. international competitiveness. While these may be
worthy goals, they still reflect crude commodifications and self-serving
concerns for Black learners, concerns that are typically couched in the
easy-to-swallow language of equity and diversity.
My own view is that even if larger numbers of Black Americans were
to find themselves in the mathematics and engineering pipelines, they
would only be absorbed into the workforce up to the point of not
threatening the status and well-being of white workers. Examination of
the public debate reveals the angst, resistance, and cries of racial
preference that are often associated with the introduction of just one
qualified African American into a given context, even when that context
has been historically all-white.
The second that thing that I do in this paper—in addition to centering
the discussion on Black children—is to argue for racism and
racialization as central concerns in mathematics learning and
participation and as lenses through which to critique mathematics
education research and policy. I do so knowing that discussions of race2
and racism are likely to produce knee-jerk, negative reactions from those
who have adopted a color-blind ideology and who believe that we now
live in a post-racial society in which race and racism are no longer
relevant, despite great evidence to the contrary. I do so also knowing
that many discussions of race and racism are unproductive because they
tend to result in overly simple framings of thee issues.
In this discussion, I acknowledge the complexities of race and move
well beyond the causal-factor approach utilized in mainstream research.
As noted by Macedo and Gounari (2006), “Racism includes a set of
ideologies, discourses, discursive practices, institutions, and
vocabularies” (p. 4). This view is reiterated by Essed (2002) who stated:
“Race” is an ideological construction, and not just a social
construction, because the idea of “race” has never existed outside a
framework of group interest. As part of a nineteenth
pseudoscientific theory, as well as in contemporary “popular”
thinking, the notion of “race” is inherently part of a “model” of
asymmetrically organized “races” in which Whites rank higher
than “non-Whites.” Furthermore, racism is a structure because
racial and ethnic dominance exists in and is reproduced by the
system through the formulation and applications of rules, laws, and
regulations and through access to and the allocation of resources.
Finally, racism is a process because structures and ideologies do
not exist outside the everyday practices through which they are
created and confirmed. (p. 185)
These characterizations are important because they overcome the
tendency to reduce racism to individual psychology. Instead, these
characterizations acknowledge that racism operates at many levels—
everyday, institutional, and structural—and involves all the actors,
practices, and institutions in a given society.
Acknowledging findings form sociology which suggest that race and
racial categories are politically contested and re-created in any given
sociohistorical and geopolitical context—through a process called racial
formation3—and also recognizing that racism is a global phenomenon,
my references to race and racism in this talk are to their everyday,
institutional, and structural manifestations in the United States.
These peculiar and particular manifestations have ranged from (a)
native American extermination, chattel slavery, Jim Crow apartheid,
Chinese exclusion, and Japanese internment to (b) post-civil rights
color-blindness to (c) a so-called post-racial context that allows for the
passage of the Secure Fence Act which calls for 700 miles of physical
and virtual fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border; a post-racial context
that allows for the burning of Black churches and synagogues; a post-
racial context that condones racial profiling of Arab Americans and
Muslims; a post-racial context that allows a Republican activist to
compare the First Lady of the United States to a gorilla and then issue a
non-apology apology; a post-racial context that encourages a lunatic
white supremacist to open fire in the Holocaust museum because of his
hatred for Jews and Blacks; a post-racial context that results in more
than 60 African American youth being turned away from a private swim
club due to fears that their presence would “change the complexion …
and the atmosphere of the club.”
The history and ubiquity of race and racism in the United States
provide some evidence for law professor Derrick Bell’s insightful claim
that racism is permanent. This ubiquity also begs the question of how,
not if, (mis)understandings of race and racism influence the ideologies
and epistemologies found in mathematics education. I push this point
further by asking how do race and racism structure the very nature of the
mathematics education enterprise?
On one hand, there is the possibility that mathematics education is a
race-neutral domain, free from racial contestation, stratification, and
hierarchies, and different in character than all other racialized societal
contexts. If so, how do we reconcile this neutral character with the
racialized inequities faced outside of the domain by many of the students
our work is intended to help?
On the other hand, I suggest that a structural, race-critical analysis
shows that mathematics education research, policy, and practice are
deeply implicated in the production and reproduction of racial meanings,
disparities, hierarchies, and identities. Not only do research and
scholarly interpretations of children’s mathematical behavior serve to
inform societal beliefs about race, racial categories, abilities, and
competence, but I would argue that race-based societal beliefs about
children from various social groups also serve to inform the ways that
mathematics education research, policy, and practice are conceptualized
and configured in relation to these children. Beliefs in so-called racial
achievement gaps and attempts to close of such gaps by raising Black
children to the level of white children exemplify these beliefs.
Moreover, a structural analysis would reveal that the pervasiveness
whiteness—represented numerically, ideologically, epistemologically,
and in material power—which characterizes mathematics education
research and policy contexts bears a strong family resemblance to the
manifestations of whiteness found in other societal contexts. In my view,
the enterprise of mathematics education is no different than other
racialized spaces and should be subjected to the same anti-racist
scrutiny, especially as it pertains to the well-being of Black children.
It is in the ways just described that mathematics education research
and policy can be implicated in New Right, conservative, liberal, and
neoliberal racial projects that shape larger racial dynamics. According
to the sociological literature, a racial project is “simultaneously an
interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics and an
effort to reorganize or redistribute resources along particular racial lines.
Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive
practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday
experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.” As an
example, consider this partial history and characterizaton of the
neoliberal racial project:
In order to win the  election and reinvigorate the once-
powerful Democratic coalition, Bill Clinton believed he needed to
attract white working class voters—the “Reagan Democrats.” His
appeal was based on lessons learned from the right, lessons about
race. Pragmatic liberals in the Democratic camp proposed a more
activist social policy emphasizing greater state investment in job
creation, education, and infrastructure development. But they
conspicuously avoided discussing racial matters such as residential
segregation or discrimination. The Democrats’ approach, which
harked back to Kennedy’s remark that “A rising tide lifts all
boats,” aspired to “universalistic” rather than “group-specific”
reforms. Thus the surprising shift in U.S. racial politics was not…
the Republican analysis which placed blame on the racially defined
minority poor and the welfare policies which has supposedly
taught them irresponsibility and dependency. The “surprise” was
rather the Democratic retreat from race and the party’s limited but
real adoption of Republican racial politics, with their support for
“universalism” and their rejection of “race-specific” policies.….
This developing neoliberal project seeks to rearticulate the
neoconservative and new right racial projects of the Reagan-Bush
years in a centrist framework of moderate redistribution and
cultural universalism. Neoliberals deliberately try to avoid racial
themes, both because they fear the divisiveness and polarization
which characterized the racial reaction, and because they mistrust
the “identity politics” whose origins lie in the 1960s…. In its
signifying or representational dimension, the neoliberal project
avoids (as far as possible) framing issues or identities racially.
Neoliberals argue that addressing social policy or political
discourse overtly to matters of race simply serves to distract, or
even hinder, the kinds of reforms which could most directly benefit
racially defined minorities. To focus too much attention on race
tends to fuel demagogy and separatism, and this exacerbates the
very difficulties which much racial discourse has ostensibly been
intended to solve. To speak of race is to enter a terrain where
racism is hard to avoid. Better to address racism by ignoring race,
at least publicly (pp. 146-148)
Recent reform movements and policy documents in mathematics
education can be analyzed for their contributions to these racial projects.
Mathematics for All, as one of the most egalitarian movements in the
field, seeks to reorganize and redistribute access to mathematics by
appealing to liberalism. In the liberal project, there is an underlying
appeal to white middle- and upper-class consciousness to convince
members of these groups that others must now share in the opportunities
that they have long enjoyed. It also aligns well with the neoliberal racial
project in that universal programs (i.e. Algebra for All) that work for all
students are promoted in lieu of group-specific efforts and objectives. It
is in this way that Mathematics for All rhetoric is about assimilation. In
classical assimilation theory, assimilation is defined as “the decline, and
at its endpoint the disappearance, of an ethnic/racial distinction and the
cultural and social differences that express it” (Alba & Nee, 1997, p.
Viewed more critically, Mathematics for All is also about nationalism
because it appeals to U.S. international standing in relation to real and
perceived foreign threats. Like assimilation, nationalism seeks to erase
meaningful cultural differences among social groups and to silence
internal racial identity politics in favor of collectivism.
So, while Mathematics for All has an equity-oriented veneer, it is
clear to me that there are other ideologies at play that are not based on
moral and humanistic concern for those who are marginalized in
mathematics. In a paper titled Hidden Assumptions and Unaddressed
Questions in Mathematics for All Rhetoric, I offer additional critique of
Similarly, a critical analysis of the Final Report of the National
Mathematics Advisory Panel report reveals how it, too, contributes to
racial projects. In this report, the learning of mathematics in U.S. schools
is linked directly to the preservation of national security. The third
paragraph of the Panel’s Executive Summary is very clear in making this
Much of the commentary on mathematics and science in the
United States focuses on national economic competitiveness and
the economic well-being of citizens and enterprises. There is
reason enough for concern about these matters, but it is yet more
fundamental to recognize that the safety of the nation and the
quality of life—not just the prosperity of the nation—are at issue.
Considering the political origins of the National Math Panel, these
security concerns can be linked to conservative Republican ideology,
Islamophobia, anti-Muslim sentiments, and the globalization of U.S.
racism and white privilege.
Beyond the policy arena, the frequent use of a race-comparative
approach to examine mathematics achievement differences among U.S.
students makes its own contribution to racial projects. This race-
comparative approach supports the normalization of whiteness and the
subordination of poor, African American, Latino, and Native American
students. Specifically, this approach has served to reify what I have been
calling a racial hierarchy of mathematics ability that is now taken for
granted by the general public and by many scholars and policy makers.
This hierarchy contributes to interpretations and representations of race
and racial categories by supporting negative societal meanings for what
it means to be poor, Black, Latino, and Native American. For example,
in most of the studies relying on such an approach, the resulting analyses
often suggest that to be Black is to be mathematically illiterate and
inferior relative to those who are identified as White and Asian.
Having provided that extended preamble—where I offered some
justification for my two goals—I do feel it is important to pause and
provide a better sense of my motivation for raising these issues.
Although this paper has been composed to address the conference
theme, it is clear that I also have a political agenda. This goes against the
idea that research and scholarship should not drift towards advocacy.
However, all research and scholarship are political. Moreover, the
production of knowledge cannot be disconnected from who we are as
people, what we have experienced, and what we believe.
My multiple identities—racial, mathematical, and otherwise—have
informed, and continue to shape, my scholarly perspective. I am Black
through self and societal identification although these asserted and
assigned identities do not always overlap. My own experiences with
mathematics both mirror and diverge from those of other Blacks in the
U.S. Experiences with poverty and racism are not unfamiliar to me nor
are experiences with academic and mathematics success.
I am also a scholar. I do not hesitate in identifying myself as a Black
scholar in a field numerically dominated by white scholars. Identifying
in this way does not limit or essentialize my perspective or discount the
perspectives and experiences of others. Paraphrasing Supreme Court
nominee Sonia Sotomayor:
I would hope that a wise [African American man] with the richness
of [his] experiences would more often than not reach a better
conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life….
[However,] I… believe that we should not be so myopic as to
believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are
incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a
different group. Many are so capable…. However, to understand
takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to
give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand
the experiences of others. Others simply do not care. Hence, one
must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the
presence of women and people of color.
Members of the audience who are familiar with my research and
teaching know that my focus on Black children and issues of race and
racialization is not a novelty for me. My efforts are not an attempt to
jump on the equity and diversity bandwagons that have emerged in
mathematics education over the last several years or an attempt to
urbanize my research. Nor does my focus represent a sudden realization
that it might be valuable to study the mathematical lives of Black
children and to be explicit about attempts to construct them as less than
My research and teaching over the last twenty years have focused
exclusively on the life and mathematical experiences of Black children
and adults in school contexts ranging from middle school to community
college. In my work, I have detailed aspects of their racial and
mathematical socializations and characterized the identities they co-
construct in light of their experiences. Moreover, rather than studying
only underachievement and failure in mathematics, I have devoted a
great deal of attention to documenting success and agency among
African American children and adults. Up until a few years ago, little
attention was given to this success and little was known about how
students defined, achieved, and maintained it. My own studies have
revealed a number of sociohistorical, community, school, and
intrapersonal forces contributing to resilience and success in
mathematics. This work has consistently highlighted issues of racism,
racial identity, and racialization not because I impose these issues but
because the participants in my research cite them over and over again as
being both central and salient.
In the remainder of this paper, I further explore Black children and
mathematics and issues of racism and racialization by structuring my
comments around four inter-related topics which, admittedly, will be
devoid of mathematics content4 and may come across as sociological in
nature, far afield of mathematics education.
First, I further explore the meaning and significance of the title of this
Second, I offer more details on the representation of Black children in
mainstream mathematics education research and policy so as to reveal
the form and substance of these representations and to show how they
have contributed to the construction of Black children as inferior to other
children. Continued rhetoric around the so-called black-white or racial
achievement gap is one example where Black children are told explicitly
and matter of factly that they are inferior to white children.
Third, I briefly outline my own research theoretical perspective that
conceptualizes mathematics learning and participation as racialized
forms of experience, not just for African American children but also for
all children. Within this perspective, I characterize mathematics
education research and policy as instantiations of white institutional
space; spaces where pervasive myths and stereotypes about African
American children have their genesis and are allowed to persist as
Finally, I present of a set of axioms for researching Black children
and mathematics; these axioms have served as the foundation of my
research and I believe they should inform all future work on Black
children, helping to counter the masternarrative that has dominated
discussions of these children.
Little Black Boys and Little Black Girls?
My focus on little Black boys and little Black girls is simultaneously
historical, present-day literal, and metaphorical. First, it recognizes the
historical significance of this conference taking place in Atlanta, a key
city in the United States civil rights movement as well as being the
birthplace of reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the final resting
place of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. In his famous I Have
a Dream speech, delivered on August 23, 1963, Dr. King envisioned a
day when little Black boys and little Black girls would be able to
experience full and humane lives, free from racism and subjugation and
all that accompanies those oppressions.
Yet, on September 15, 1963, less than one month after that clarion
call for social progress, four little Black girls—11-year-old Carole
Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley,
and Carole Robertson—were murdered by a bomb placed under the
steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church located in Birmingham, Alabama.
The ground floor of the church collapsed, killing the girls and injuring
some twenty others. The lyrics that opened this paper are taken from the
song Birmingham Sunday, which was performed by Joan Baez to mourn
the girls’ deaths.
Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan,
was identified by witnesses, arrested, and charged with murder and
possession of dynamite without a permit. Other Klansmen were also
identified but not initially charged. In his first trial on October 8, 1963,
Chambliss was found not guilty of murder but received a small fine and
sentenced to six months in jail for possessing dynamite. It was later
revealed that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover interfered with prosecutions
in the cases. In 1971, the case was re-opened by the Alabama attorney
general. A grand jury indicted Chambliss for the murder of Denise
McNair on September 24, 1977. In November 1977, Chambliss was
retried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. It was not
until 2001 and 2002 that two of the remaining suspects were convicted.
Although the murders of four little black girls punctuated September
15, 1963, two other murders of black children occurred in Birmingham
on that day:
James Robinson, a black 16-year-old, became involved in a rock-
throwing incident with a gang of white teenagers. As he fled from
the scene, Robinson ran down an alley near the Sixteenth St.
Church and was promptly shot in the back and killed by a white
City of Birmingham police officer. A few hours later, on the
outskirts of the city, 13-year-old Virgil Ware was riding on the
handlebars of a bicycle with his older brother. From the opposite
direction, a red moped, decorated with the Confederate flag,
quickly approached the two boys. Without warning, the operator of
the motorbike, a white 16-year-old, pulled out a gun and shot
Virgil twice in the chest, killing him instantly.
Why do I bring up civil rights history in a contemporary discussion of
mathematics learning and participation? I do so because history reminds
us that society has always had a high threshold for Black pain.
Moreover, the lives of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia
Wesley, Carole Robertson, James Robinson, and Virgil Ware were taken
not because they were just any children. Their lives were taken because
they were Black children. As I stated earlier in this talk, when discussing
diversity, we should not lose sight of particularity. Any analysis of Black
children’s behavior in the world, including mathematics education, that
fails to contextualize or appreciate what life was like, or is like, for these
children is shortsighted and bound to be limited in its explanatory
There will be some who hear my words and say, “Get over it. Stop
whining. Stop playing the race card. That’s ancient history. Things have
gotten better.” and so on. However, these dismissals and resistance only
amount to a desire to maintain the status quo and to avoid the work of
understanding how society’s laws, policies, and practices routinely
continue to converge in subjugating and dehumanizing Black children.5
Representing and Constructing Black Children in Mathematics
My focus on little Black boys and little Black girls is present-day
literal because I contend that even in a post-civil rights, color-blind era
highlighted by the election of a President with biracial African heritage
and the identification of mathematics literacy as a 21st century civil
right, there is little reason to believe that the well-being of little Black
boys and little Black girls is a priority in America or in mathematics
education, in particular. We still live in a society where blackness and
black life are denigrated.
Just a few months ago, Bonnie Sweeten, a white woman from
Philadelphia claimed that she and her 9-year-old daughter had been
abducted by two Black men and thrown into the trunk of a Cadillac. In
response to her 911 calls, massive local and national media attention was
given to her abduction. Crisis intervention teams were sent to her
daughter’s school. Only after more careful police work was it revealed
that Sweeten had faked the abductions and had flown to Disneyworld
after withdrawing more than 12,000 dollars from her bank accounts.
This is a repeat episode of earlier cases involving Susan Smith and
Charles Stuart in which the villainous Black man was blamed for killing
four white children and a white wife. In these two instances, Smith and
Stuart were the guilty parties. Yet, in all these cases, society was quick
to accept the accusations about Black men that were put forward.
The media attention and concern for the well-being of white children,
men, and women stands in stark contrast to the attention being given to
the alarming numbers of murders of Black children in my own city of
Chicago. As of mid-May, 2009, a total of 36 schoolchildren, most of
them Black, had been killed. National media attention was slow in
coming.6 This is likely because in the eyes of many, each time a Black
child’s life is taken, it is just “another one gone.”
Consider the following mathematical analysis that appeared in a May
12, 2009 article by author Stacey Patton. I begin with six names:
Megan Kanka. Amber Hagerman. JonBenét Ramsey. Elizabeth Smart.
Caylee Anthony. Sandra Cantu.
When these six cute, middle-class white girls, ranging from age 2 to
14, went missing or were horrifically murdered, national news outlets
devoted hours, days and weeks of coverage to their cases. But when
children of color are victimized in similar ways, the mainstream media
often remains conspicuously silent or provides scant coverage at best.
A quick GOOGLE news archive search illustrates this point. As of
May 2009, there were 3,670 articles on the 1994 murder of 7-year-old
Megan Kanka, who was raped and abducted by a twice-convicted sex
offender who lived next door. The 1996 murder and abduction of 9-year-
old Amber Hagerman produced 2,570 headlines. An astonishing 13,500
news stories helped sensationalize the 1996 murder of JonBenét
Ramsey, a 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant found bound and
strangled in her home. Between June and November of 2002, 8,300 new
stories were printed about the abduction and recovery of 14-year-old
Elizabeth Smart. Between October 2008 and May 2009, a total of 1,570
stories discussed the murder of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose
skeletal remains were found a month later. And in the first month, 424
articles appeared on 8-year-old Cantu, who was raped, killed, stuffed in
a suitcase and thrown in a pond in northern California on April 11.
Do the math. Six young white girls. One abducted and later returned.
Five killed. 30, 134 news stories and nearly two million total web hits.
And with the exception of the Ramsey case, suspects have been
captured, indicted, tried, and even sentenced to death for the brutal
crimes against these innocent children.
Each of these girls has her own Wikipedia entry, which discusses
their lives, details of their investigation, and archives media references
and external links to various websites, talk shows, and made-for-TV
documentaries and movies as well as child and victims advocacy sites.
Now enter the names of the following children: Corey Hatter, Ordero
Hillard, Marcus Washington, Andre Malcolm, Arthur Tyler, Sameer
Conn, Shaun Brown, Shaun Bowens, Kiyanna Salter, Daniel Calderon,
Ernest Williams, Julian King, Brian Murdock, Quentin Buckner, Devour
Robinson, Dushawn Johnson, Isiah Stroud, Andre Stephens, Esteban
Martinez, Itzel Fernandez, Johnel Ford, Rachael Beauchamp, Johnny
Edwards, Kendrick Pitts, Raheem Washington, Carnell Pitts, Franco
Avila, Gregory Robinson, Lee Ivory Miller, Rakeem Washington,
Tommie Williams, Marquell Blake, Juan Cazares, Christina Campos,
and Alex Arellano.
All 36 of these schoolchildren, mostly black and a few Latinos, were
killed in the streets of Chicago between September 2008 and May 2009,
the span of a normal school year in Chicago. They were shot, stabbed,
beaten with bats, kicked to death, burned and run over by cars.
GOOGLE their names and you won’t get a return of hundreds of
national news stories or thousands of web hits discussing their deaths.
The only child of all these victims to gain a great deal of media attention
was 7-year-old Julian King, the nephew of singer and actress Jennifer
Hudson, killed last October by his mother’s estranged husband.
For the rest of the children, there are no Wikipedia entries. No
documentaries. No made for TV films. And there won’t be. They’ll be
remembered in a few grainy YouTube video tributes posted by friends
and family members. And if there are more shootings, all of these
children will be lumped together and described as statistics and tragic
victims of urban warfare, even though most were not high school
dropouts, gang members, or criminals. They were killed during day-to-
day activities: walking to the store, playing in a park, waiting for a bus,
or riding in a car with a parent.
A cursory examination of the ways Black children have been
researched and represented in mainstream mathematics education
research and policy further shows how Black children are devalued.
The dominant story line, or masternarrative, in these research and
policy contexts is one that normalizes failure, ignores success, and uses
white children’s mathematical behaviors and performance as the
standard for all children. This masternarrative has helped to support
negative social constructions of these children. Mathematics education
policy reports dating back 25 years have explicitly labeled Black
children as mathematically illiterate. More recently, African American
12th graders have been told, in a very public fashion, that they are only
as skilled and demonstrate math abilities at the level of white 8th graders.
After their comprehensive review of over 16,000 studies, the
members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel reduced their
research recommendations specific to Black children to issues of
motivation, task engagement, and self-efficacy. These areas are
important but they focus attention on Black children as though they are
unmotivated, inclined to disengagement, and lacking in agency.
Institutional and structural barriers inside and outside of school,
including racism, that affect student mathematics achievement,
engagement, and motivation received little, if any, attention in the
report. Resistance and disengagement among some students may, in fact,
be rational responses to oppressive schooling practices.
In other research contexts such as the Second Handbook of Research
on Mathematics Teaching and Learning, it has been claimed that poor
children (often a euphemism for Black children) enter school with only
pre-mathematical knowledge and lack the ability to mathematize their
experiences, engage in abstraction and elaboration, and use
mathematical ideas and symbols to create models of their everyday lives.
Left unanswered is whether researchers who make these claims and
report these findings understand, even partially, the “everyday lives” of
Black children. As I have stated in other writings (Martin, 2009c):
Because the tasks, assessments, and standards for competence used
to draw these conclusions are typically not normed on African
American children’s cultural and life experiences, one could also
argue that … the preferred ways of abstracting, representing, an
elaboration called for in these studies and reports are based on the
normalized behavior of white, middle-class and upper-class
children…. Very little consideration is giving to exploring patterns
in the ways that [poor] African American children do engage in
abstraction, representation, and elaboration to determine if these
ways are mediated by their cultural experiences in out-of-school
settings and whether the preferred ways of engaging in these
processes serve useful functions relative to those experiences. (p.
Moreover, despite these claims about Black children’s mathematical
knowledge, the reality is that little is known about their metacognitive
and racial awareness during mathematical problem solving, particularly
in contexts that are meaningful to them and where they are likely to
demonstrate a range of mathematical behaviors. Research in these areas
would not only provide insight into Black children’s reasoning processes
and strategy choices but also about their awareness of how they are
socially constructed, and how they socially construct themselves, as
Those who choose to study Black children in high-poverty contexts
must first acknowledge, and understand, that ghettos and impoverished
communities are not natural or normative contexts for Black children.
Like slavery and Jim Crow, these are “race making institutions”
designed to dehumanize and inflict material, structural, and symbolic
violence on those who are forced to live in them. As noted by
sociologist Loic Wacquant (2006):
The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison: it encages a
dishonoured category and severely curtails the life chances of its
members in support of the ‘monopolization of ideal and material
goods or opportunities’ by the dominant status groups dwelling on
its outskirts. (p. 101)
In terms of new directions, only recently have researchers begun to
directly examine the mathematical experiences and identities of Black
children versus a narrow focus on their achievement. Researchers doing
this work have explored several important areas related to these
students’ mathematics learning and development: (1) their beliefs about
their ability to participate in various mathematical contexts, (2) their
motivations to learn or do mathematics, (3) the ways in which they
define the importance and value of mathematics knowledge and success
in mathematics, (4) their mathematics socialization experiences in
school and non-school contexts, and (5) the co-construction of
mathematics identities and other social identities that are important to
these students. Research in these areas supports the assertion made
Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard (2003) in their book
Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African
African American students face challenges unique to them as
students in American schools at all levels by virtue of their social
identity as African Americans and of the way that identity can be a
source of devaluation in contemporary American society…. Before
we can theorize African-American school achievement, we need to
have an understanding of what the nature of the task of
achievement is for African Americans as African Americans. (pp.
My own approach to studying Black children as Black children has
led me to develop a conceptualization of mathematics learning and
participation as racialized forms of experience. I claim that these
learning and participatory experiences are shaped and structured by the
meanings and representations of race and racial groups that exist in the
Aims and goals of
Research, policy, and mathematics
Conceptualizations of Conceptualizations of
practice orientations education
to race research, policy,
Those who know
mathematics. Those who do Close the racial
Mainstream Races as biologically Resistance to realities
not. Those who are achievement gap.
mathematics determined. Race as a of racism. Color-
mathematically literate. Maintain white
education way to disaggregate data. blindness.
Those who are privilege and
research, Race as a causal variable Racial apathy.
mathematically illiterate. United States
policy, and for mathematics Solution on demand.
Students belong to a racial international
practice achievement. Interest convergence.
hierarchy of mathematical competitiveness.
Consideration of the Consideration of
negotiated nature of identity everyday, institutional,
Race as a sociopolitical with respect to and structural racism.
learning and Empowerment and
construction. mathematics. Asks what Mainstream
participation liberation from
Historically contingent does it mean to be African mathematics education
as racialized oppression for
nature of race. American, Latino, Native research and policy
forms of marginalized
Consideration racism and American, white, and Asian contexts as
racialization. American in the context of instantiations of white
mathematics learning? institutional space.
I argue that this conceptualization of mathematics learning and
participation may be more relevant to the mathematical experiences of
African American learners than the dominant perspectives which
typically characterize learning and participation as cultural or cognitive
because this conceptualization situates the realities of racism and
racialization at the center of these experiences (Martin & McGee, 2009).
I have also utilized this race-critical perspective to address the
production of knowledge about African American children and
mathematics and to reframe the conversations about these children in
several areas including mathematics teacher knowledge and teacher
selection and assessment. I have addressed questions such as, What is
the study of Black children the study of? What should the study of Black
children be the study of? Why should Black children learn mathematics?
Who should teach mathematics to Black children? What does it mean to
be Black in the context of mathematics learning?, and What does it mean
to be a learner of mathematics in the context of Black struggle?
I urge you to consult the recent volumes Mathematics Success and
Failure Among African American Youth (Martin, 2000), Mathematics
Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children
(Martin, 2009b) and Culturally Specific Pedagogy in the Mathematics
Classroom: Strategies for Teachers and Students (Leonard, 2008) for
more details about, and examples of, the ways these questions are being
White Institutional Space
Returning to the masternarrative on Black children, I contend that it
is only within certain kinds of ideological and material spaces—contexts
that sociologists have called white institutional spaces—that so-called
racial achievement gaps and the mathematical illiteracy of Black
children can assume common-sense status. The term white institutional
space comes from the work of sociologists Joe Feagin (1996) and
Wendy Moore, who, in her book Reproducing Racism: White Space,
Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality (2008), examined the white
space of law schools and how the ideologies and practices in these
schools serve to privilege white perspectives, white ideological frames,
white power, and white dominance all the while purporting to represent
law as neutral and objective.
White institutional spaces are characterized by (1) numerical
domination by whites and the exclusion of people of color from
positions of power in institutional contexts, (2) the development of a
white frame that organizes the logic of the institution or discipline, (3)
the historical construction of curricular models based upon the thinking
of white elites, and (4) the assertion of knowledge production as neutral
and impartial unconnected to power relations.
In a recent paper, I provide a more detailed discussion of how
mathematics education research and policy contexts represent
instantiations of white institutional space. For example, I offered a
critique of the composition of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel
as well as its failure to draw on the most insightful recent research about
Black children and mathematics. My critique was not only directed at
the Math Panel but also at scholars in the field who, from recognized
positions of power, failed to object to the absence of African American
math education researchers on the Panel. This kind of inaction, despite
progressive rhetoric about equity and diversity, was noted by Macedo
and Gounari (2006) as being characteristic of liberal approaches in white
… many white liberals (and some black liberals as well) fail to
understand how they can embody white supremacist values and
beliefs, even thought they not embrace racism as prejudice or
domination (especially domination that involves coercive control).
They cannot recognize how their actions support and affirm the
very structure of racist domination and oppression they profess to
wish to see eradicated….By not understanding their complicity
with white supremacist ideology, many white liberals reproduce a
colonialist and assimilationist value system that gives rise to a
form of tokenism parading under the rubric of diversity… That is
why many white liberals prefer to promote “diversity” to the extent
that diversity as a cultural model not only fails to interrogate the
white privilege extracted from a white supremacist ideology but
also allows for white liberals to have blacks and other oppressed
cultural groups as mascots in their Benetton color scheme of
diversity. This form of diversity promoted through multicultural
programs, for example, represents a mere reorganization of
knowledge through which diversity is presented as a naturalization
process whereby different ethnic and cultural groups (white groups
are never associated with ethnicity, even though their ethnicity
provides a yardstick against which all other groups are measured)
are represented and their asymmetrical power relations with the
dominant white group are never interrogated (p. 32)
These sentiments were echoed by Liz Appel (2003) in her focused
critique of liberal white participants in the movement against the
prison industrial complex:
… many well-intentioned white folks wish to incorporate an anti-
racist approach in their work. Seeking a quick resolve, the problem
of racism is often superficially addressed, however. Focusing on
tangible and visible solutions, they tokenize individual people of
color, perhaps by bringing in a few nonwhite people into public
spaces and circles of power (as board members, speakers, etc.), in
an attempt to demonstrate the “diverse” nature of the struggle and
those that make up the fight. This is not to say that every attempt to
incorporate people of color is inherently racist and self-serving….
[But does] not the fact that whites are able to select people of color
for inclusion… reaffirm our power and privilege? (p. 84)
It is through my analysis of mainstream mathematics education
research and policy contexts as instantiations of white institutional
space, and my understandings of other such spaces, that my focus on
little Black boys and little Black girls in this paper becomes
metaphorical. Sociologists tell us that when someone or something is
socially blackened, it or they are relegated to marginalized status and
thought of as inferior. Similarly, when something is whitened, it or they
are elevated in social status or importance. In terms of racial dynamics
of the United States, this has been documented in books with such
provocative titles as How the Irish Became White (Ignatiev, 1996) and
The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Goldstein,
2006). This whitening has also been witnessed in the education arena
where Asian Americans, collectively, have been given model-minority
and honorary white status. Blackening, on the other hand, has most
recently happened to Arab Americans and Muslims who are now are
subject to racial profiling and other forms of subjugation. Blackening
also explains how the diversity among those from the African diaspora is
muted so as to create a singular perception and construction of these
groups. Blacks from Caribbean, West Indian, and African backgrounds
are all labeled by the dominant society as Black when they come to the
So, it is interesting to ask the following about the United States
mathematics education enterprise: Who are the little Black boys and
little Black girls in mathematics education and how are they, and their
perspectives, embraced? Are they the scholars who take up race, racism,
and power; issues that only occasionally find their way into mainstream
mathematics education research and policy discussions? Are these
scholars and their perspectives tolerated but also marginalized? Is it
assumed that they are less-informed about mathematics content,
teaching, learning, curriculum, and assessment to the degree that they
are largely absent from key discussions in the field; called on only when
issues of equity and diversity are considered?
A recent example from my own experiences serves as an interesting
data point in such a discussion. In the year 2000 my book, Mathematics
Success and Failure Among African American Youth, was published.
That book was based on my dissertation, completed three years earlier.
The dissertation and the book fleshed out my early thinking on issues of
mathematics socialization and mathematics identity. After nine years in
circulation, one would think that my place in the literature on
mathematics identity, particularly for Black children, would be well-
established and somewhat secure.
Several months ago, prominent white scholar authored a review-type
article in a well-known mathematics education research journal. The
article made reference to my book and the work of other scholars who
have been focusing on issues of identity. A few weeks after that journal
article appeared, a prospective student phoned me for information about
our program. During the conversation, the caller indicated that he had
read the journal article and suggested that I was probably excited to have
my work referenced by such a well-known scholar. In the words of the
prospective student “You know you have made it when someone like
professor X cites your work, especially in a journal like Y.” It took some
time for me to process the conversation but when I did, I realized that
despite the book being in circulation for nine years and despite
subsequent publications and dozens of presentations across the country,
it was not until a white scholar validated my work that it was deemed
important by the student. I could add to this stories about how the work
has been consistently minimized and ignored by particular white
scholars who also claim to do research on identity. I have also seen this
in my reviews of other work in the field where Black scholars or
scholars doing work in area X have been overlooked in ways that seem
far from accidental. I do not cite these examples based on some sense of
personal disappointment or because of a need for validation.. Those of
you who know me well also know that, although m work is deeply
personal, my personal identity is not defined by my scholarly identity. I
cite these examples to show that knowledge production is deeply
political and that it is especially so in white institutional spaces, where
what is true and what is of value is frequently determined by white
Bringing this back to my focus on Black children, I ask why is that in
a field that purports to be committed to equity for all children, why are
there no explicit discussions of the pervasive whiteness in mathematics
education research and policy contexts or discussions of the fact that the
norms and values of these white institutional spaces are increasingly
being applied to populations of other people’s children? Why are there
no discussions of how we continue to blacken some children by
producing research that implies their inferiority? Is it that the
characteristics of white institutional spaces are so strong that they lead
us to believe this state of affairs is normal and acceptable? I urge others
to undertake their own critical analyses of the mathematics education
enterprise. Mine is only one perspective.
Where do we go From Here? Axioms for Researching Black Children
In so far as Black children are concerned, I remain hopeful that
mathematics education research and policy, if done right, can benefit
these children. Clearly, what constitutes “right” is subject to much
debate and my conception of right does not mean that all previous
efforts are wrong. Yet, little that constitutes right for these children will
emerge from an enterprise that fails to understand its own complicity in
these children’s subjugation and negative social construction. Moving
forward, I want to propose adherence to a set of sociocritical “axioms”
for addressing Black children, in particular. As most of you know, an
axiom is defined as a self-evident proposition or universally recognized
truth that is accepted without proof as the basis for argument.
In mathematics, proofs of various conjectures and claims are
essentially a function of the axioms upon which the system is organized.
If you change the axioms, you change the system, and you also change
what constitutes valid proof and what is regarded as true. My own
research, as well as the comments and analysis in this paper, are
premised on these axioms7 and I believe they should undergird all future
inquiry to the mathematical experiences of Black children:
! Axiom I: Black children are brilliant; researchers should not
overly concern themselves with documenting how Black
children differ from white children and reifying racial
achievement gaps but with how black children can best attain
and maintain excellence in mathematics;
! Axiom II: Black children possess the intellectual capacity to
learn mathematics as well any other child; they do, however,
often lack sufficient opportunities to engage in meaningful
! Axiom III: Race is not a causal variable in determining
mathematical achievement among Black children or any other
group of children; research and policy purporting to cite race
effects should be dismissed as scientifically invalid;
! Axiom IV: Racism, racial identity, and racialization are
important considerations in mathematics learning and
participation; Mathematics education research and policy are
deeply involved in the production and reproduction of racial
! Axiom V: Mathematics education research and policy are
simultaneously sites of oppression and liberation for Black
These statements are not meant to romanticize Black children nor do
they ignore their struggles. However, they require attention to Black
children’s social realities and how forces, discourses, and projects in the
larger society influence those realities. They also require a
reconsideration of the assumptions about the competencies and
capacities of Black children in ways that move us beyond mathematical
illiteracy and inferiority with respect to other learners.
To show that it is hard for people to get past Axiom I, I would like to
share a quiz that I have been giving to audiences of teachers, scholars,
and policy-makers across the country. The quiz taps into the deep and
contradictory beliefs that we have about Black children and the results
that I see in the responses provides a partial explanation for the lack of
progress on creating meaningful mathematics education for Black
children. Feel free to answer the questions yourself while I discuss what
I found in giving this quiz.
Question 1: How many of you have heard of the racial achievement
Question 2: How many of you have, or plan to, devote some aspect of
your teaching practice, research, or policy-oriented efforts to help
close the racial achievement gap?
Question 3: How many of you truly believe in the brilliance of black
As I stated earlier, Black children serve as canaries in the coal mine.
If we cannot do right by these children, it is difficult to believe that we
can accomplish the goal inherent in the theme of Embracing Diverse
1 Excerpted lyrics from the song Birmingham Sunday written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez.
2 Clearly, my focus on race does not diminish the importance of race, class, and gender intersections.
3 Omi & Winant (2005, p. 16) define racial formation as the process by which social, economic, and political forces
determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings.
4 Although studies of Black children learning specific mathematics content are critically important, I do not dwell on
this topic because I do not wish to suggest that there is something peculiar about these children’s learning or that
some content is especially problematic for them to learn. The fact is that normal, healthy Black children can learn
whatever mathematics they are given the opportunity and necessary supports to learn.
5 As pointed out by educational anthropologist, studies of education for Black children should consider forces at
many levels: societal, community, family, institutional, school, individual. I acknowledge that there are many
internal, community- and family-based forces to consider. Those forces are not addressed in this paper. See Martin
6 For an interesting mathematical analysis of media coverage on crimes against Black and White children see the
Appendix to this paper or go to: http://www.thedefendersonline.com/2009/05/14/36-children-of-color-dead-in-
7 It is true that these are not axioms in the strict mathematical sense. I am appropriating the term to serve
sociological and political purposes.