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Monday, September 20, 2010

Ethnicity, Racism and Math…

by Nick Diaz

(Originally published August 31, 2010, on
Republished on the Betrayed blog with permission from author Nick Diaz,,
and from John Ashbury, editor and publisher of

In early 2009, I was coaching the MATHCOUNTS competition team at The Barnesville School, then my place of employment. MATHCOUNTS is a nationwide system of mathematics competitions, open to middle schools students in the USA.

Students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, in public, private, and home schools are eligible to participate. From 1986 through 2009, I coached the math teams at Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick, Middletown Middle, and at Barnesville.

As the four Barnesville eighth graders were getting ready for the upcoming state competition, one of my “mathletes” mentioned that our team didn’t have much of a chance of placing high, because, after all, we didn’t have Asian students on our team. After all, Asian students from China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are inherently good at math, and better than anyone else.

The stereotyping of Asian students goes on, unabated, throughout our society. I consider this to be as racist an attitude as outright negative discrimination based on skin color and cultural differences.

The general attitude is that Asians are good at math because they’re smarter, can learn math much faster, know “stuff” more deeply, and are much quicker at arriving at answers. Finally, Asian students are good at math because, after all, they’re Asian.

Not only children, but also adults, share this bigoted view of the world; this is unfortunate, since two evils emanate from such attitude:

It allows people to believe that scholarly achievement, particularly in mathematics and science, is determined by genes and by ethnic extraction. This is not so; academic achievement is due to hard work and dedication, to focusing on the importance of learning for its own sake, and on being willing to practice, practice, practice…

It gives those of us who are not of Asian extraction the excuse not to perform at a high level in mathematics, science, engineering, or other similar pursuits. After all, Asians are automatically better, so why try?

It occurred to me then that my Barnesville team members deserved an explanation that was based on general mathematical principles. So, I get up on my high horse and began telling my young students to stop the racist talk and bigoted excuses.

If we would take a cross-section of the population of China, India, Korea, or Japan, I bet we could find dumb people, average people, and smart people, all in about the same ratio as ours in North America. Thinking that Chinese are better at math, and that Indians are better engineers – that smacks of racism, pure and simple, and denies a basic American conviction – that people are people, regardless of nationality or skin color.

So, why is it that so many Asians in North America do so well in math, science, and engineering?

Simple! Who comes here to live, either permanently or temporarily from China, Korea, India, etc? Mathematicians, engineers, scientists – at the graduate degree level or higher. These are the people who are even allowed to leave China and study and/or work in North America. The general population doesn't come here – they stay there. Those who arrive here are the physicians, the theoretical physicists, the mathematicians, the engineers, the chemists, the computer scientists, the microbiologists.

These people usually arrive in North America with families. Guess what their kids will be like! Highly intelligent, well-disciplined, focused on learning, from families where learning is considered a sacred duty, and where math and science achievement is considered to be due not to raw intelligence, but to hard work and dedication.

Where are these people concentrated? In Montgomery and Fairfax Counties, suburbs of DC, where many think tanks and research facilities abound. That explains why Takoma Park Middle School in Montgomery County has won the state MATHCOUNTS competition every year since 1986. TPMS is a math/science magnet school in a highly populated area; the staff at Takoma Park and Montgomery County schools can choose who's in and who's out. As one can expect, on any given year, their top team of four students will consist of Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, or American Jewish extraction.

What that means is that we, in general, must get rid of the stereotypical thinking that allows us to justify our obvious inferiority in math and science achievement, and blow it off as "Americans are dumber than Asians because they just ARE!" It's particularly sad when adults, including parents, subscribe to the nonsense and keep spouting that racist line.

This year one of my eighth graders is a Korean exchange student, a very quiet, reserved girl. After one week of school, I can tell there’s something special about her. Despite the obvious language difficulty, she reads the questions carefully, engages her brain, and answers the questions. Reading and thinking properly, quickly, and accurately are the keys to success in mathematics, regardless of the student’s grade level. To be blunt, this Asian student runs circles around the rest of her classmates.

Why is that? Surely because she’s Asian – that’s what many people would say. Perhaps it could be also that she is more used to focusing, and therefore is able to recall the mathematical principles that all the 8th graders had learned in past years, (to be forgotten quickly and decisively), and put them all together and applied properly. Perhaps her parents insist that she do her best, rather than dismiss their children's poor achievement in math by saying silly things like, "Oh, I was never that good in math," or "My child just doesn't have a mind for math" or "Asians are better at math anyway..."

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.


James Stripes said...

Clear headed. Thanks.

David Shenk explains in The Genius in All of Us (2010) that the most important talent is a work ethic. When immigrants work harder than the native born, their children will perform better in school too. We must demand more of our schools, but these demands must begin with demands upon ourselves.

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Barbara V said...

This makes a lot of sense, great post!