Home Grown Black Males

Algorithms and African-American life by William F. Tate

During the early 1990s, I served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. As was the custom, I presented the early version of a paper to my colleagues. The paper asserted that the use of mathematics and statistics in our democratic society is often linked to an attempt by one group seeking to gain an advantage over another group. Situations are mathematized in order to maximize advantage.

Of course, rarely does the rationale of using numbers suggest the potential for harm to a group. I stated, “For example, hospitals are experimenting with computer systems that can calculate the probability of surviving an illness. Mathematizing the decision to place a patient on life support – under the banner of optimizing system use, minimizing hospital cost, and maximizing profit – could result in discriminatory practice. Does being an African American male lower a patient’s chances of receiving life support services, since comparatively speaking, African American males have shorter life expectancy?”

In addition, I worried that the use of mathematical modeling minimized the risk of successful challenges to the decision-making process. I asked, “How many students leave school with enough knowledge and practice to challenge the use of mathematics in society.” Read more here.

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