Winter 2021

Critical Race Theory in the Mathematics Classroom

To ignore critical race theory is to set our democracy back, to neglect the difficult history of our country, and to further marginalize students.

by Dr. Lidia Gonzalez

Mathematics is typically thought of as an objective discipline and the teaching of mathematics as apolitical, yet William F. Tate reminds us that only in mathematics do we count without a social purpose of some kind. As an example, counting is used to determine our political leaders, laws, and policies. It is used in determining the election districts that ultimately decide the political future of our country. The census, one of the largest undertakings of counting, is used to determine the distribution of resources and services. In business we count goods and money but do not often consider the inequitable conditions that have produced these as well as the business itself. The implication of what we count and how we count are vast, but not often highlighted in mathematics classes. In reality, the teaching of mathematics is a political act and as such the application of critical race theory to the mathematics classroom is a necessary condition for the learning of mathematics. In fact, Freire (1994) reminds us that all teaching is political in nature.

The teaching of mathematics is political in several ways. First is the matter of who has access to high quality rigorous mathematics instruction in those subjects that are valued by the current society. Access and equity are important political considerations. It has been shown time and again that mathematics is a gatekeeper to future success (Burton, 2003) and that individuals of color and women are traditionally under-represented in the field. Students of color are under-represented in schools that have Advanced Placement courses in calculus and statistics. They are also under-represented in those courses where they exist.

Further, whose mathematics is taught and what mathematical contributions are obscured is also a matter of politics. Every single civilization in history has had a numeration system, a way of expressing quantity that consists of numerals to represent numbers and rules for their use. Despite this most of us have only learned of our own and the Roman numerals. Our decision to exclude the Mayan, Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian numeration systems among others is a political one. This is one example of many where mathematical content that is perfectly valid and valuable is excluded in favor of content that developed in Europe. In short, while we often view mathematics as critical to economic growth, we must consider how mathematics is taught and whether it is being used to examine the social world and make it more just or to replicate the current unjust social order.

What Critical Theory Brings to Mathematics Education

Critical theory can be a vehicle through which we embrace the political nature of mathematics education while engaging students, especially those most vulnerable in the discipline, in mathematics. Critical theory has at its center the examination of power and privilege inherent in large systems such as the system of education. Critical theorists strive to promote social justice and freedom while making visible the power dynamics at play in our inherently unjust society and the systems within it (Kincheloe, McLaren, Steinberg, & Monzó, 2018). Critical theory has evolved leading to the development of critical race theory that acknowledges that race cannot be separated from identity nor from the discussion of power and privilege in society. Further, that to understand the educational experiences of students of color we cannot discount the ways in which race, socioeconomic status, and identity work together to create unique experiences that influence and impact students. Racism, it is argued, is inherent in all our systems that of education included and has a profound impact on our social world and those individuals within it (Ladson-Billlings & Tate, 2016). Critical race theory posits that injustice is built into the very fabric of our society.

With respect to mathematics, embracing critical race theory in the classroom means centering the instruction students receive about the experiences of the diverse youth in our urban classrooms. Too often students of color as well as those from lower socioeconomic statuses are marginalized when it comes to mathematics. The contexts used in their courses and classroom materials do not reflect their lived experiences and they are expected to leave who they are at the classroom door. To say that we teach mathematics in a way that is culture free is incorrect. We do attend to culture and identity in the mathematics classroom but often it is to a middle-class white student’s culture that we cater. This is detrimental to our students of color that Gutiérrez exclaims have suffered from dehumanizing mathematics education. Martin (2012) and Gutiérrez (2018) argue that we must reconceptualize mathematics education to create a system that finally values and builds upon the achievements and histories of those traditionally marginalized in the within it. Both argue against tinkering with the current system, explaining that we must create a new system of mathematics education in which those students typically marginalized are already an integral part of the center. We need to value the strengths, mathematical and otherwise, that students bring to the classroom. Inviting and building on critical race theory in the mathematics classroom is one way that we can do this.

An example of Mayan numerals via archeologist Dr. Diane Davies, whose website includes activities for children using Mayan numerals, which you can access here. Teaching cross-cultural contributions to mathematics helps marginalized students more easily see a place for themselves in the world of math and its applications while helping all students better appreciate the evolution of the discipline and its varying forms.

In addition to centering instruction about the experiences of urban youth, bringing critical race theory into the mathematics classroom also involves bringing in the mathematical culture and content from civilizations whose work is typically excluded from the traditional mathematics cannon. In this way, students can see their civilizations and peoples and the contributions these have made fully a part of the mathematics valued in their classrooms. They will see themselves reflected in the work in a way typically not done at present.

Approaching mathematics through a social justice context has been proposed and used by some to address issues that confront urban youth from historically marginalized communities while engaging them in the study of meaningful mathematics. The idea of education as a vehicle for liberation and social justice has been around for decades, but it is only recently that this idea has been applied to mathematics. As such mathematics is being conceptualized in new ways. Dominant mathematics is “mathematics that reflects the status quo in society, that gets valued in high-stakes testing and credentialing, that privileges a static formalism in mathematics, and that is involved in making sense of a world that favors the views of a relatively elite group” (Gutiérrez, 2007, p. 39). Meanwhile critical mathematics is “mathematics that squarely acknowledges the positioning of students as members of a society rife with issues of power and domination” and which furthermore, “takes students’ cultural identities and builds mathematics around them in ways that address social and political issues in society, especially highlighting the perspectives of marginalized groups” (Gutiérrez, 2007, p.7). Both of these are necessary for the teaching of mathematics for social justice, a powerful pedagogy that can be used to engage students in the study of mathematics while both valuing who they are and advocating for social change towards a more equitable society.

Liberation through the Mathematics Classroom

Math for social justice consists of four components. First, access to high quality upper-level mathematics for all students. Next is the re-centering of the curriculum around the experiences of students from marginalized communities. Third is the use of math as a tool for analyzing social life and working towards social change towards a more equitable society. It is not enough to study the issues, action towards change is also needed and forms the fourth component (Gonzalez, 2009). Many proponents of mathematics for social justice see education as a stepping-stone to freedom and liberation.

Using math with a social justice frame can help students understand and respond to, for example, the ways that our “desegregated” education system actually remains heavily segregated. Chart via the Economic Policy Institute.

We can use mathematics as a tool to analyze social issues, center problems around student experiences and allow students to pose and examine their own problems. Further, we can offer students the opportunity to take actions towards a more equitable world. By recognizing the unique characteristics which critical race theory highlights, we can work with students to teach mathematics in a way that allows it to become a tool for social exploration and social change.

As an example, a group of students with the help of their teacher studied the availability of space in their school. It was a large school that had been divided into smaller schools each of which had their own floor. The students were concerned that their floor had less space than the others and where able to compute the surface area of the floors and the square footage each student had in the hallway during the change of classes. Lessons on linear measurement, area and ratios helped students talk about overcrowding in mathematical terms. The students shared their findings with the district. They wrote letters to the superintendent, handed out fact sheets to school administrators and spoke as a school governing meeting. Their words had power and were backed by mathematics (E. E. Turner & B. T. Font Strawhun, 2005). Students were able to use mathematics to advocate for a more socially just society. Similarly, one can use percent change to study the changing characteristics of CEOs or government officials. Just how many women and people of color hold these positions compared to ten years ago? We can use probability to explore incarceration rates among people of color as well.

What exactly is a socially just society? Personally, I rely on Gutierez’s (2007) benchmark for achieving equity in education. She argued that equity in education is “being unable to predict student patterns (e.g., achievement, participation, ability to critically analyze data/society) based solely upon characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, and proficiency in the dominant language” (p. 41). We can expand upon this idea to argue that a socially just society is one in which we are unable to predict success in life based upon characteristics including—but not limited to—race, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, citizenship status, and proficiency in the dominant language. We can use mathematics to work our way towards this goal.

What, however, of the current backlash against critical race theory in the classroom? As much as possible I urge you to do what you can to incorporate critical race theory in the classroom. I understand that we are all in different positions and the support some have to do so may not be what others are afforded. It is normal to proceed with caution in this time, but we must proceed. To ignore critical race theory is to set our democracy back, to neglect the difficult history of our country, and to further marginalize students in mathematics and other areas who have struggled hard to build a positive mathematics identity, a solid educational experience and to work towards success despite the reality of their classrooms and our social world.

Dr. Lidia Gonzalez is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at York College, CUNY. Her research focuses on the teaching of mathematics for social justice, the development of mathematics identity and issues of equity and diversity in mathematics education. She is broadly interested in improving the experiences of urban youth as they pertain to mathematics education.


****Editor’s Note: We wish to clarify the terms used throughout our “Teaching ‘CRT’ in an Age of White Backlash.” Some of our essays engage actual Critical Race Theory, the legal term used by thinkers & jurists like Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Derrick Bell to explain the racist ways that American laws are enforced and litigated. Our submissions also criticize white conservative attacks on “CRT”—the umbrella term they apply to any teaching critical of white supremacy. The distinction between these terms is important for two reasons. 1) As many have already noted, no one teaches Critical Race Theory in primary or secondary schools (although it would be fine if they did) because it is a legal theory. 2) It is important to explain clearly what white supremacists mean when they use the term “CRT” because it is important that Americans of all ages understand the ways that our racist history and culture contributed to the country we inherit. Thus, although we encourage contributors to use both terms as it relates to their work, we want to be clear that conservatives lie about what Critical Race Theory is both to prevent teaching about our country’s racist past/present and to undermine necessary critiques of our white supremacist legal system.****

Further Reading

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (2016). Toward a critical race theory of education. In Critical race theory in education (pp. 10-31). Routledge.

Burton, L. (Ed.). (2003). Which way social justice in mathematics education? Westport, CT: Praeger.

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Gonzalez, L. (1009). Teaching math for social justice: Reflections on a community of practice for high school math teachers. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 2(1), Spring/Summer: 22-51.

Gutiérrez, R. (2018). When Mathematics Teacher Educators Come Under Attack. Mathematics Teacher Educator, 6(2), 68-74. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5951/mathteaceduc.6.2.0068

Gutiérrez, R. (2007). (Re)Defining equity: The importance of a critical perspective. In N. S. Nasir & P. Cobb (Eds.), Improving access to mathematics: Diversity and equity in the classroom (pp. 37-50). New York: Teachers College Press.

Kincheloe, J. L., McLaren, P., Steinberg, S. R., & Monzó, L. (2017). Critical pedagogy and qualitative research: Advancing the bricolage. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research (5th ed.) (pp. 235-260). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Martin, D. B. (2012). Learning mathematics while Black. Educational Foundations, 26(1/2), 47–66.

Tate, W. F. (2005). Race, retrenchment, and the reform of school mathematics. In E. Gutstein & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (pp. 31-40). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Turner, E. E., & Font Strawhun, B. T. (2005). “With math, it’s like you have more defense.” In E. Gutstein & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (pp. 81-87). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

0 comments on “Critical Race Theory in the Mathematics Classroom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: