For a reflection Amy Harmon was working on, a followup to her article on the experience of Black mathematicians in American academia, I took a shot at the question: How many children have parents with PhDs?
The result was the highlighted passage (17 words and a link!) in her piece:
[all the racial biases that contribute to Black underrepresentation include] the well-documented racial disparities in public-school resources, the selection of students for gifted programs — and the fact that having a parent with a Ph.D. is helpful to getting one in math, while black children are less than half as likely as white children to live with such a parent.
To get there: I used data from the U.S. Census Bureau via IPUMS.org: The 1990 5% Public Use Microdata Sample (decennial census); and the 2000, 2010, and 2017 American Community Surveys.
I coded race/ethnicity into four mutually-exclusive categories: Single-race White, Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander (API); and Hispanic (including those of any race). I dropped from the analysis non-Hispanic children with multiple races reported, and American Indian / Alaska Natives (for whom about 0.5 percent lived with a PhD parent in 2017).
IPUMS made a tool that attaches values of parents’ variables to children with whom they share a household. I used that to calculate the highest level of education of each child’s coresident parents. In the Census data, children may have up to two parents present (which may be of the same sex in 2010 and 2017). Children living with no parent in the household were not included.
This let me calculate the percentage of children living (at the moment of the survey) with one or more parents who had a PhD. For each of the four groups the percentage of children living with a parent who has a PhD roughly doubled between 1990 and 2017. API children had the highest chance of living with a PhD parent, reaching 6.8 percent in 2017. The percentages for the other groups were: Whites, 2.7 percent; Blacks, 1.0 percent; and Hispanics, 0.7 percent:
The 2.7% for White children, versus, 1.0% for Black children, is the basis for her statement above.
Details (including the whole parents’ education distribution), data, codebook, and code, are available on the Open Science Framework at: https://osf.io/ry3zt/ under CC-BY 4.0 license.
Both of Amy’s pieces are important reading for academics in many disciplines, including sociology, to reflect on the experience of Black colleagues in the environments we inherit and reproduce.
With regard to math, Amy points out that Black exclusion is not just about denying economic opportunity, it’s also about denying the public the benefits of all the lost Black math talents — and about denying Black potential mathematicians the joy and satisfaction of a passion for math realized.
As Daniel Zaharopol, the director of a program for mathematically talented low-income middle-school students, put it when I interviewed him for a 2017 article: “Math is beautiful, and being a part of that should not be limited to just some people.”
And Amy makes a good case that math bias and its outcomes contribute directly to racism much more broadly:
Some misguided people claim that there are not many black research mathematicians because African-Americans are not as intelligent as other races. These people, whom I have reported on for other stories in recent months, almost invariably use mathematical accomplishment as their yardstick for intelligence. They note that no individuals of African descent have won the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. They lack any genetic evidence to explain the gap in average I.Q. scores between white and black Americans that they cite as the basis of their belief, or reason to think that a genetic trait would be impervious to social or educational intervention, or that high I.Q. is key to math ability, which Timothy Gowers, a 1998 Fields medalist, has attributed largely to “the capacity to become obsessed with a math problem.”
But I have been reporting on these topics for several years, and I am acutely aware that math prowess factors heavily into the popular conception of intelligence. There’s a vicious cycle at work: The lack of African-American representation in math can end up feeding pernicious biases, which in turn add to the many obstacles mathematically talented minorities face. Which was one more reason it seemed especially important to hold up to the light all the racial biases that contribute to that underrepresentation.