One of Derbyshire’s claims, however, is true: that there are no black winners of the Fields medal, the “Nobel prize of mathematics”. According to Derbyshire, this is “civilisationally consequential”. Derbyshire implies that the absence of a black winner means that black people are incapable of genius. In reality, black mathematicians face career-retarding racism that white Fields medallists never encounter. Three stories will suffice to make this point.
The first involves Saunders Mac Lane, one of the most influential algebraists of the last century. He co-authored, with Garrett Birkhoff, a text that enthralled me as a first-year undergraduate. I first encountered lattice theory, which for a long time I loved more than anything in life, in that book. In 1951, Mac Lane was president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Vanderbilt University hosted an MAA conference, and three black mathematicians wished to attend the conference’s banquet. They were barred and Mac Lane refused to take a stand: Vanderbilt University was in racially segregated Tennessee, and he did not want to offend his hosts.
The second story involves one of the few black mathematicians whom white mathematicians acknowledge as great – or, I should say, “black American mathematicians”, since obviously Euclid, Eratosthenes and other African mathematicians outshone Europe’s brightest stars for millennia. His name was David Blackwell. I first met Blackwell in 1995, in the common room of Berkeley’s maths department, one of the few times two black people had ever been in the room. Blackwell obtained his PhD in mathematics when he was only 22.
While he had a fellowship to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, the American home of Einstein and the other-worldly logician Kurt Gödel, nearby Princeton University refused to allow Blackwell to attend lectures because he was black. Although he later became the first black member of the National Academy of Sciences (with a colleague saying, “he would come into a field that had been well studied and find something really new that was remarkable”), the University of California at Berkeley’s math department would not hire Blackwell on account of his race (a European later asked Blackwell to join the statistics department).
My third story is not that in 2002, after I wrote an article about Confederate remembrance, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan sent me death threats, forcing me to leave my home and my permanent job at Vanderbilt University. Others, such as Barrett Brown in the Guardian and in his book Hot, Fat, and Clouded, have recounted how little support I got from the university authorities during this ordeal.
The last tale is not either that, when I was a professor there, police at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology detained me on suspicion of being a bank robber.
No, my final story is that, in 2009, I was an invited speaker at the Counterterrorism Research Lab (CRL), along with US president Barack Obama’s soon-to-be cybersecurity tsar, Howard Schmidt. At one point, a fellow American brought up the civil war, and said – angrily – that the pro-black-slavery Confederacy had the right to secede.
I objected as politely as I could. The man exploded, firing off a chain of expletives in front of the 80-person audience. I was blamed for his outburst, and a job offer that had been previously discussed disappeared (it had happened before, when prospective employers withdrew offers after hearing about the Klan attacks). Along the same lines, a senior officer of the National Academies ceased communication with me when he saw my essay in the Guardian about racism.
Before I was 30, I had solved decades-old problems posed by the world-renowned Richard Stanley at MIT. At 32, the Klan attack sidetracked me. I probably never would have won, but one must be under 40 to win a Fields, and I have not had time to focus on Fields medal-worthy pursuits. Other black people fared likewise.
Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income pales besides being shot for Skittles, so I do not complain. Instead, I let Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould reply to Derbyshire: “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” What gives me hope is that race relations are not what they were in 2002. The National Review fired Derbyshire. White people helped my career – specifically Birkhoff’s student George Markowsky and Austria’s Günter Pilz – but Blackwell refused to speak with me for even one minute: perhaps race is asymptotically approaching irrelevance.
Republished with the author’s permission from The Guardian.