When Math Was a Capital Crime

It’s impossible to remember all the books I’ve read, all the stories they contained, but I do try to combine my memory of stories with the books and authors who brought them to my attention. Alas, that does not apply to this story. But the truth of it has been borne out many times.

The Sharecropper Era was a terrible time in United States history. Not all sharecroppers were former slaves, many were also former smallholders who could not compete economically against the large landowners who undersold them by exploiting the sharecropper system. “Exploit” here does not mean “they employed that system;” it means, “they controlled it, manipulated it, and violated every safeguard by which the sharecroppers ostensibly had the right and power to earn their way off the land.” Some of their tricks could be readily spotted: the false weight scale, the healthy product discarded for imaginary imperfections.

But then, there was also “the tab.” Miners would have had the same problem. If you couldn’t add up what you spent in the company store and subtract what you paid back, with a record verifiable by outside impartial witnesses, your chances of earning your way out of bondage went way down. When The Freedmen’s Schools went up, “writing” did not mean poetry, it meant “record-keeping.” “Arithmetic” did not mean equations, it meant household financial transactions. And lynch “mobs” knew who the really outstanding students were.

This was the story that stuck with me. My father had lived in the south for much of his adolescence, and believed the myth that lynch campaigns (we now know there was no “mob” — “impassioned lack of discipline” — about them) devoted their attention to those who disturbed the public peace with violence: housebreaking and such. But no, it was those who disturbed the ancien regime by helping their friends and family keep proper records about weights turned in, money paid (or, in the case of wages, not paid), and then, what was charged and paid back in the stores.

Other than actually picking cotton and tobacco, this doesn’t strike me as very different from how the powers-that-be run our nation today. Do we really know the terms and exclusions of our credit card bills, our health insurance, our mortgages? Do we know who we owe, how much we owe them — and what we are paying back? For many of us, the answer to that, is “no.”

So when Americans fall behind the rest of the world in math, the most important problem is not that employers are forced to accept less effective employees. The most important problem is that the average American, as a householder, as a voter, as a public watchdog, has no idea who owes what to whom. No idea how it was accrued, and, above all else, when it will be paid back.

I take this to be some of the frustration behind Tea Party anger. Most of them appear to have grown up with an expectation of controlling all these numbers, these budgets, these decisions. Beyond the issues of racism, of sexism, of skill levels, I share with them this simple pain: we have absolutely no power to put this back into simple, solvable math.

 

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