The Next Oprah Winfrey & Algebra: How to Empower Young African American Women With Additional Math Skills

03/02/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

As an African American man who was raised in low-income housing primarily by strong black women, I was taught to love, admire, and respect women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. When I was a boy, many of the women in our housing project were young, unemployed single mothers who struggled to raise their multiple children. The situation was so stressful that I remember, at 8 years old, I locked myself in the bathroom looked in the mirror and wept for the hearts and souls of the poor women in my community. My tears flowed like the Nile.

One day my elderly grandmother, Lulluree, sat me down on her front porch for a talk.

"Marcus," she intoned, "if you want to make it out of this gang-infested ghetto then you have to learn math and science."

I took hold of her hand and asked, "Grandma, why is learning math and science so important."

My devoutly Christian grandma replied, "Grandson, math and science are the secret language of God. They are a source of power." Then, without saying another word, she went back to her couch where she was reading the King James Version of the Bible.

As I look back upon my often-painful and sometimes-mystical childhood experiences from the emotional distance of my current perspective as an African American human rights attorney now in my early forties, I believe it is important for me to assist and strengthen the socio-economic position of African American women in our society. To paraphrase a former president, I ask not what African American women can do for me, I ask what I can do for African American women. Those powerful women who raised me deserve my earnest devotion to their struggle in America. So I began to look into the education of African American girls more deeply.

While researching the topic, I read a report titled "Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity" put forth by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women's Law Center. The study states that, "As a result of the many impediments to African American girls' educational opportunities and success, African American girls lag behind all other girls on almost all indicators of academic success, including high school graduation rates."

Since I grew up in the inner city ghetto, I am intimately familiar with the "impediments to opportunities and success" referred to in this bold and courageous report. In my old neighborhood, the gang members and thugs often preyed upon the most attractive and intelligent girls. Showering them with expensive gifts bought with drug and extortion money, the gangsters would lure young girls away from school, get them pregnant, and then abandon them. It was a hurtful cycle that I witnessed first-hand. How can we break this crippling pattern?

I then came across a report titled The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which indicates that, "In 2013, African American girls had the largest percentage of students who scored below the basic achievement level in mathematics. In addition, sixty-three percent of female African American 12th graders scored below the basic level in mathematics."

I was so troubled by these statistics and desperate to make a positive change that I turned to my former college mathematics professor at the University of California at Riverside, Pam Clute. She provided me with an interview in which she states, "We know that poor mathematical skills lead to poor science study especially in engineering, physics, chemistry, and computer science."

Logically, if we can significantly improve mathematics skills among African American girls and young women, we may be able to help develop more African American females who are engineers, physicists, chemists, and computer scientist. However there are other complex and multi-layered tactics to be employed.

First, we must implement trauma-informed, gender-responsive counseling services for youth in our schools. If girls are traumatized at home, it's more difficult for them to succeed in school. Second, we need sensitivity training for teachers in order to help them avoid the unfair stereotyping and stigmatization of African Americans women and girls. Third, I recommend increased funding for early childhood programs such as Head Start which will improve cognitive development for young girls. Fourth, I suggest the creation of a federal and state program called "Getting Our Girls out of Gangs" designed to help girls escape the trap-life of gangs in order to recommit themselves to educational progress.

When I think about these challenges faced by African American women and girls in education, I am inspired with optimism for a brighter future of success and equal opportunities. I am heartened by the example of Oprah Winfrey who has opened a school for girls in South Africa and who has donated to Historically Black Colleges and Universities here in the United States.

By loving, cherishing, and supporting mathematics education for African American women and girls, we improve our society and empower future generations.

(The author thanks Assistant Vice Chancellor of UC Riverside Pam Clute for her important insight and contribution to the academic progress of women and girls.)

Mark Charles Hardie is a candidate for United States Senate in California (2016). An attorney, Mr. Hardie is a veteran of both the United States Army and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He is a member of the World Jewish Congress and the NAACP. His critically acclaimed autobiography is titled "Black & Bulletproof: An African American Warrior in the Israeli Army" (New Horizon Press, New Jersey, 2010).