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Character assassination in math debate doesn't add up

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Racial tinderboxes like Pittsburgh can produce strange political bedfellows sometimes. I never thought I'd ever have a reason to agree with Pittsburgh school board President Jean Fink about anything. But here we are, sitting in the same boat on the same river of racial resentment that periodically bubbles up from the subterranean depths of this town.

This time we're both wondering why California State University math professor Wayne Bishop should be the victim of a whispering campaign on the eve of Thursday night's school board forum on math education.

Given the charge of racial insensitivity that has dogged him since 1997, questions have arisen about Bishop's fitness to discuss the city's math curriculum. An e-mail circulated by an educator who has clashed with Bishop in the past has succeeded in putting a minority of school board members on edge.

In an e-mail to some colleagues, Bishop, a longtime critic of reform-oriented models of math education, questioned the motives of his adversaries following a debate about whether traditional approaches to math education were appropriate for California's diverse student population:

"Seriously," Bishop wrote, "the day was such as you described. ... Too many teachers, ACSA (American Council of School Administrators?) and 'experts' with the standard 'developmentally appropriate' form of racism. You know, little pickaninnies just don't learn math like we do."

For daring to write ironically in an environment where only the most didactic statements are clearly understood, Bishop has incurred the wrath of the chronically suspicious. Only by doing violence to the English language can Bishop's complaint about racist condescension on his opponents' part be construed as an affirmation of the very racism he decries. Now he's in the goofy position of having to disprove a negative.

Bishop made three unreasonable assumptions when he dashed off a note to colleagues on June 24, 1997. No. 1: A missive written in cyberspace will remain private. No. 2: Educational experts are sufficiently smart enough to differentiate between sarcasm and bare-knuckled racism. No. 3: He could demonize his opponents' position without fear of being demonized himself.

As someone who has had nasty e-mail exchanges with university professors and high school teachers who wouldn't fulfill the most elastic definition of "literate," I know there are plenty of folks charged with educating our children who aren't as smart as we'd like them to be. Reading comprehension -- even by so-called educational professionals -- often runs aground on the rocky shores of irony.

Unfortunately for Bishop, his cavalier use of the word "pickaninnies" has given ammunition to critics inclined to see racial conspiracies in the most innocuous utterance. It rivals the use of "niggardly" by a white Washington, D.C., civil servant in the annals of colossal misunderstandings.

Bishop could've spared himself a lot of aggravation by enclosing the offending sentence between quotes to differentiate his adversaries' thought from his own, but he didn't. Now his words are being used to smear his character with the hope his ideas will also be discredited in the process.

Bishop's ideas about math education may or may not be short-sighted. I don't know, but I suspect that his larger point that that black students don't need a culturally specific way learning math apart from other groups is correct.

As a black man fed up with the widely held notion that I'm supposed to be sensitive to the point of paralysis whenever an unflattering word about blacks is uttered, I'm insulted by the pre-emptive attack on Bishop's character. If he's such a racist, shouldn't there be more of a track record his critics can point to?

Character assassination on the eve of an important debate is an affront to democracy and the intellectual dignity of the entire community. We should demand to hear the pros and cons of every argument when it comes to our children's math curriculum. The distracting buzz of irrelevancies like "pickaninnies" points to a failure in logic that has no place in a discussion about math, of all things.

When it comes to the sad calculus of race, we live in a town where common sense is often obscured by the memory of decades of contempt and discrimination. The pain is understandable, but it's not a sufficient reason to act as if 1 + 1 = 3.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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