Algebra is a Civil Right!


Occupy Math’s editor spent a year in Americorp running a “safe to be smart” program at a library in Rochester NY. Smart kids needed a place to study where people would accept them for being smart — people thought being smart was a way out of the community and viewed it as a form of betrayal. This dysfunctional viewpoint is helped along by institutional racism. Most of the white people left Rochester for its suburbs during the school bussing controversy. At present Rochester is a poor city surrounded by relatively affluent suburbs. One effect of this situation is that the schools in Rochester are in terrible shape — which leads me to the man pictured above, Robert P. Moses and his Algebra Project

Occupy Math starts with the opposition. Andrew Hacker, a man who Occupy Math considers at best counter-productive and at worst quite evil, has published a book, The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions in which he argues that most math beyond basic arithmetic, such as quadratic equations, is far more than the average citizen needs. Occupy Math had thought the idea of compliant, ignorant worker-drone citizens was an exploded theory, but as recent events have shown it is alive and well. An early post in this forum explains why solving quadratic equations is a superpower. In any case, doing well in math in high school has a quantifiable impact on your income. Even a basic understanding of math can help you manage your finances.

What is the connection between math and racial discrimination?

Bob Moses, fresh off of the front lines of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi, decided his next project was to empower Americans in the lower strata of society by making sure that they had the chance to learn math. His slogan “Algebra is a Civil Right” is the title of this blog. Math lets you go on to university — this is one obvious way it helps people out of poverty — but there are other effects. A person with a grounding in math is harder to deceive, better able to evaluate important transactions like the deal they are getting while buying a car, or when they are purchasing insurance. To turn this around, mathematical ignorance is a way of making people helpless. Let’s take a look at what Mr Moses has to say in his own words, from Page 5 of radical equations.

Today, I want to argue, the most urgent social issue affecting poor people of color is economic access. In today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy. I believe that the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961. I believe we can get the same kind of consensus we had in the 1960s for the effort of repairing this. And I believe that solving the problem requires exactly the kind of community organizing that changed the South in the 1960s. This has been my work — and that of the Algebra Project — for the past twenty years.

This brings us back to Rochester, New York and its suburbs. Since schools are paid for with property taxes, Rochester has far less money per pupil than its suburbs. The educational materials that Occupy Math saw when visiting his editor there were old, substandard, and scarce. Robert Moses’ Algebra Project is trying to address this situation, which exists in many places. From the Wikipedia article:

The Algebra Project works to change common attitudes of our society that routinely promote the exclusion and regression of minorities. The goal of the Algebra Project is to take the students who score the lowest on state math tests and prepare them for college level math by the end of high school. This is done by doubling up on math courses for the four years of high school. The Algebra Project is based in research and development, school development, and community and site development.

Math as a cold-chisel.

If ignorance is the chains holding people back, learning is the cold-chisel that can strike off those chains. Being able to read comes first, but the ability to do and follow basic math is a close second. Our founding fathers were pro-education. Thomas Jefferson not only founded the University of Virginia, he wanted its students’ education to be paid for by tax dollars. Benjamin Franklin was America’s first world class scientist and up to his eyeballs in education. Contrast this with the current opposition to education by the party in power. As with Andrew Hacker, there is a desire to create compliant drones rather than educated citizens, a reprehensible goal!

Robert Moses’ Algebra Project is a counter-force to the bizarre idea that educated citizens are bad for the country and the government. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to the US Constitution established that citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. The Algebra Project attempts to extend this to equal opportunity in society. If we give the poor a bad education, they are much more likely to remain poor. This is not only wildly unfair, it is a criminal waste of the talented, creative, and intelligent people that happen to be born poor.

Learn math, teach math, put things out there!

Occupy Math recently launched a new type of post, the activities post and we have always had posts for teachers. The internet is a tool that can make efforts like the Algebra Project easier and more effective, but only if the math education community dives in and gets materials out there, with no pay-walls, as few barriers as possible. If you know of good resources, please comment or send pointers to

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


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