Math can oppress students of color due to the inequitable system it was developed under, according to a slide presentation at the University of Oregon’s 2023 mathematics conference reviewed by The Daily Signal. 

Oregon high school math teacher Jered Ratliff delivered a lecture called “Mathematics as a tool of oppression” at the Northwest Mathematics Conference in Portland on Oct. 14, which was sponsored by the University of Oregon. 

“Recent politicization of mathematics has driven questions about its pedagogy in our schools, but these questions fail to recognize mathematics as a potentially oppressive tool,” Ratliff’s description of the lecture reads. “Mathematics is our single most powerful academic building block, but the power it holds frequently allows it to inhibit discovery and societal good.” 

Ratliff “is interested in exploring intersectionality of social justice and global power dynamics created by math systems,” according to his biographical information on the math conference website. 

The math education system in America was developed 200 years ago when only the children of white landowners were educated, according to Ratliff’s presentation.

“It’s not saying that specific questions or standards themselves are racist,” a slide depicting a text conversation between Ratliff and a friend from a few years ago reads. “But if the way we are teaching continually leaves people of color behind, why wouldn’t I want to dismantle the process that is least somewhat responsible for that inequity?”

Ratliff continues to say that “math proficiency doesn’t mean superiority.” Only 30% of Oregon students tested as proficient in math in 2022, according to the Oregon Department of Education. 

Ratliff is involved with Oregon’s Math Alignment Project, which released a series of modules on “equitable math” practices to disrupt “the systemic inequities of schooling.” Discussion questions in the modules encourage teachers to consider how their “potential bias” might “inadvertently reinforce inequities.”

In the October presentation’s description, Ratliff said he would “share about math’s tremendous, often subtle, power that is more often used to stifle than it is to inspire.”

“My dream is to see math fully and mutually used as a tool not to subvert but instead for liberation,” he wrote in the session’s description.

Ratliff told The Daily Signal he is seeking ways to “make math better.”

“I’ve always loved math,” Ratliff said in an email. “I’ve taught it in high school for 16 years. I don’t think it is racist. I do think it’s oppressive to many people, and I believe that is largely because I have yet to find how we have addressed the rapidly changing world by also innovating our math learning, discovery, and education.”

From 1650 to present-day America, mathematical discovery has often been rooted in American colonialism, chattel slavery, and so-called subjugating systems, Ratliff said. He elaborated on this idea in his essay that was the basis of his Northwest Mathematics Conference presentation last month. 

One of the conference slides said the “U.S. was once at the forefront of innovations benefiting humanity” but “shifted from innovator to subverting and stymying progress.” Thus, America is an “agent of ‘re-oppression.’” 

Ratliff listed three steps to flatten the so-called math hierarchy in his slideshow: “Identify a structure or system with mathematics as its basis,” “identify those in positions of power in this structure,” and “identify those traditionally at the mercy of this structure” in order to “dismantle the hierarchy.”

The University of Oregon did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment. 

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