Over half a century since Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, America finds itself far more accepting of racial and ethnic differences than ever. It has become increasingly rare to hear of instances of explicit segregation or discrimination, and when those do unfortunately crop up, they are almost always met with widespread condemnation. For this, we can thank Dr. King and his millions of contemporaries, predecessors, and descendants, who have pushed, and continue to push, for racial equality and justice.
If racial equality means only that we should refrain from explicit discrimination, then we could say that our job as a nation is practically done. Unfortunately, the truth is that we are still a long way from achieving true equality in opportunity and achievement, and this is especially apparent in the field of mathematics: in the past decade, African Americans received less than one percent of mathematics doctorates awarded in the U.S., a country that is nearly thirteen percent black.
Dr. Edray Goins is one of these African American doctorates. A recipient of two prizes from Caltech during his time there, and of a doctorate from Stanford, his background seems like it would make any member of the mathematical community gawk in admiration. But that was not the case for Dr. Goins. Following a long and difficult journey to get to where he is today, things are not much better for him. Dr. Goins was one of three black students in his graduating class at Caltech, and has been, at nearly every step of his mathematical career, the only black student or faculty in his department. “To say that I feel isolated,” he says, “is an understatement.”
When Dr. Goins gave up his full professor post at Purdue, his colleagues told him he was throwing his life away. While at the institution, however, he had heard rumors of a white professor warning students not to work with him. He had been disrespected at conferences and his work ignored. When chosen to receive full professor status, the head of Purdue’s math department said he had overlooked Dr. Goins’ sparse research background in light of his other accomplishments, especially in involving minorities in mathematics.
But that was not what Dr. Goins had been looking for. “I just never really felt respected,” he said.
I am fortunate that my race puts me in the (vast) majority in the mathematical community, and that I will likely never suffer such difficult, embarrassing situations like those Dr. Goins has experienced. But at the same time, as a female, I am acutely aware of the discrimination — whether intentional or not — in our community. I have grown used to the discomfort of being the only girl in my math classes, or one of a handful participating in a math competition or event. I have heard many remarks about how girls “have it easy” because there are girls-only math competitions and programs, because we can get into universities that would not accept boys with similar mathematical achievements.
These words will always sting a little, no matter how many times I hear them, but I’ve learned to brush them aside. Some find fault with Dr. Goins for not doing the same. He is criticized — even by his black colleagues in the field — for being too sensitive, for dwelling on minor insults that often come out of ignorance and not from the intention to be hurtful.
But what is wrong is wrong, and it should not be the responsibility of the recipient of such attacks to turn a blind eye to prejudice. The first step in fixing any problem is to recognize it as such. Until we do so, Dr. Goins will remain part of the one percent.