Racist Math

Anybody who has seen me do comedy knows that my sense of humor revolves around two topics: racism and math.  Well, three, if you include nachos.  So, after discovering that a Atlanta elementary school was giving math homework assignments focusing on slavery, I had to write about it.

If you haven’t heard about this yet, questions from a homework assignment and exam include: “Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”

I was shocked and appalled that such questions were asked of 8 year old children.  Firstly, on the racist level, it is appalling that such questions would be asked to solve math problems.  I remember hearing throughout my youth of kids complaining about “when are we ever going to use this?” regarding math.  If this was an attempt to apply math in a way that kids would use it one day, I am even more concerned about this problem.  Is this some bigoted math teacher’s attempt to teach kids how to return to the halcyon days of the Confederacy?  I hope not.

Secondly, these math questions are really awful questions.  If “each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” was a question, that is an impossible to solve question!  If 8 slaves were equally picking one tree, then they would each pick 7 oranges.  However, this question doesn’t make clear how many trees are being picked, and more importantly it asks “how much”, but doesn’t state what the units of the answer is expected.  How much trees?  How much oranges?  How much orange juice? How much nachos? We don’t know because UNITS are never mentioned.

This poorly worded math question angers me almost as much as the racism behind it, perhaps more.  Because it fails on two levels – the students will not understand that anytime they have to solve a problem, particularly a word problem, there are always units (this trips up all novice scientists).  Furthermore, it is not a very good math problem as there is an unknown variable (number of trees).

Finally, the argument from the school is that they were trying to do some form of interdisciplinary education, combining social studies with math.  I presume they are doing some unit on slavery and antebellum South in social studies, otherwise, this would definitely be an act of spontaneous racism*.  As an aspiring educator, I have come up with a few more applicable math problems to combine 3rd grade social studies and math.  Admittedly, they also have an agenda behind them, but I think they’re better. Here they are:

  1. 40 tons of industrial sewage is dumped into the Mississippi River every day.  How many tons is that in a week?  Republicans don’t recognize pollution until there are over 4000 tons of sewage in the Mississippi River.  How many weeks will it take a Republican to notice the pollution in the Mississippi?
  2. Frederick Douglass beat up 180 racists before he was arrested by the police.  It took the police 9 hours to arrest Frederick Douglass.  How many racists did Frederick Douglass beat up per hour?
  3. It takes a lobbyist $1 million dollars to bribe a member of government.  If there are 100 influential members of each branch of government, how much money is necessary to influence all 3 branches of government?
  4. 1/3 of the Georgia budget goes towards the police department, while 1/2 of the budget goes towards corporate tax cuts.  1/6 of the budget goes towards paying the salaries of government employees.  The rest goes to education.  What fraction of the Georgia budget goes to education?

I would be happy to write more questions, especially if you’re the Department of Education in Georgia.

*One could argue that all acts of racism are spontaneous, but I would say that they are just being fastidiously pedantic.


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